Thoughts on… American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty, 1999.

Directed by Sam Mendes.
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney.


A middle aged man finds himself questioning what his life has become and promptly embarks on a mid-life crisis.

The world, and particularly America, is now a very different place than it was when American Beauty was first released. Arguably the most difficult test a movie has to face is the test of time, and for every timeless classic that still retains moments of wonder there are countless that have slipped from memory and the annals of history. It may not seem like American Beauty is a particularly old movie, and indeed in comparison to the silent movies from cinema’s tentative years it could be considered remarkably fresh, it is still worthy of retrospective evaluation to see if it holds up today.

The key to American Beauty’s lasting appeal lies within the themes it tackles, which are unsurprisingly and disappointingly still relevant today. The idea of a rotten core at the heart of America’s suburbs, which spreads outward like a disease and finds form in broken marriages and homophobic neighbours, still resonates. This is not a particularly unique idea, having been examined previously and perhaps most notably by David Lynch with Blue Velvet (1986), but director Sam Mendes provides a far more accessible yet equally challenging view.

After a brief opening scene that is effectively misleading, we are introduced to main character Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged father and husband. With a dry voice over he informs us that he will be dead in a year, before describing his pitiful existence where he steals fleeting moments of happiness masturbating in the shower. On a surface level it would appear he has a perfectly normal life, but he’s miserable and disenfranchised. His marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening) is lacking love and his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) no longer communicates with him. Lester is heading towards a mid-life crisis, sparked by the brief attention paid to him by one of Jane’s friends, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). She’s sexy and seductive, portraying herself as liberal about sex and yet incredibly aware of her own beauty. Lester’s encounter with Angela sparks a long lost feeling deep inside of him, and so he begins trying to recapture his youth – and in the process, frees himself of his misery.

American Beauty relies on Kevin Spacey to be a success, for he has to completely sell a pathetic character and a believable transformation. Much of the comedy derives from how Lester rebels against his own life, acting out in an entirely inappropriate yet exhilarating manner. His longing for a lost past is relatable regardless of age, and yet Spacey brings charm and charisma in spite of Lester’s lusting for an underage girl. Of course, this isn’t a one man show and the rest of the cast all perform at the top of their game, with Annette Bening doing a particularly good job of displaying the repercussions of Lester’s rebellion on their home life. Deep down she isn’t exactly happy either, but it is in response to Lester’s behaviour that she is able to strike out on her own.

The entire story revolves around Lester, observing how his actions affect those around him. Jane, struggling with an embarrassing father and obnoxious best friend, seeks solace in new neighbour Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). He gives her the attention she sorely needs, and in doing so she finds confidence within herself. Yet beyond this Ricky is surprisingly passive, choosing to view the world through the lens of a camera. We get glances into his home life, with a troubled upbringing by a military father – Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), and a perpetually terrified and mentally absent mother, Barbara (Allison Janney). American Beauty appears to adopt a similar worldview shared by two different characters – both Lester and Ricky seem to possess the ability to look beyond the ugliness in front of them and find beauty, although for Lester this is something he only manages once free of his entrapment.

American Beauty offers itself to a variety of readings and raises some challenging questions in the process. This is an expertly crafted story with endearing characters and thought-provoking messages, and for once the audience isn’t instantly spoon-fed all of the necessary information and are invited to look closer. Evidently there is a discontent that breeds amongst the seemingly idyllic suburban lifestyle, often buried beneath false smiles and store bought happiness, and it is for this reason that American Beauty remains relevant today. Are you, and those around you, truly happy? Look closer.

Flickering Myth Rating: Film **** / Movie *****

Liam Underwood

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