American Beauty (1999)

Review of American Beauty
Originally written October 28, 1999

An Imperfect American Beauty

American Beauty is a difficult film to review. Someone asked me last night if I liked it and I didn’t know what to say. Honestly. Liking the film or not isn’t really the issue anyway. What American Beauty is and what it tries to be, is a commentary. And commentaries aren’t there to be liked or disliked. Commentaries are there to encourage reflection and discourse. So, if you ask me if I think American Beauty is a good commentary, I would not hesitate. But if you ask me if it’s a good film, I still would have to take a moment to consider that question again.

American Beauty has its strengths and it has its weaknesses. Unfortunately, its one major weakness is the lens through which I view it. That lens is the memory of another recent film, The Ice Storm. American Beauty is a more modern, more tongue-in-cheek and, mostly, more self-aware film than The Ice Storm, but it is, nonetheless, in the same genre. And since, in this reviewer’s mind, The Ice Storm is in a class by itself, American Beauty just cannot live up to its impossible standard.

A slice-of-life look at a typical American family, American Beauty reveals all the dysfunction and self-loathing that bubbles below the surface of outward normalcy in everyday American life. Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a washed-up reporter for a media magazine whose fantasy life is far richer than his real life, the one he shares with his trying-to-be-perfect real estate agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) and typically moody teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Together, the Burnhams are the picture of domestic misery while putting on the face of suburban bliss. When Lester decides to chuck it all and reclaim his lost adolescence before it’s too late, the carefully crafted portrait of the perfect American home comes crashing down.

Lester’s pursuit of self-fulfillment comes at several high prices, and affects everyone around him. This tale of suburban American angst is oftentimes clever and funny, and bleak and disturbing. Spacey is, as usual, excellent in the role of the suddenly-alive man traveling through a most unusual mid-life crisis. The acting is uniformly strong, from Bening playing a woman who is barely holding onto her cherished comfortable life, to Birch, who plays the sullen and unhappy teenager to perfection. A real treat in this film is Wes Bentley, who plays next-door neighbor Rickey Fitts, who introduces Lester and Jane to worlds neither allowed themselves to discover on their own.

American Beauty is being hailed in many circles as a true cinematic gem. Could it be that the movie-going public is just happy to hear a fresh voice? Both the director, Sam Mendes, and the writer, Alan Ball, make their feature-film debuts with this film, and it does show in its freshness and brash originality. Mendes, best known as a top theatrical director, directed the Tony-Award winning revival of Cabaret and Nicole Kidman’s Broadway showcase Blue Room. Ball’s previous writing credits were as a television writer for such series as Cybill and Grace Under Fire. But American Beauty is certainly their triumph, and they each show tremendous talent for the big screen.

But again I cycle back to my original trouble with American Beauty. Seeing any other film about dysfunctional American suburbia, no matter how good it may be, just cannot compare with The Ice Storm. This may be my own shortcoming, but it inhibits my carefree anointing of American Beauty as the best thing to come out of Hollywood in a long time. But I will say this: American Beauty does distinguish itself apart from The Ice Storm in one key way. American Beauty has an awareness that The Ice Storm lacks. The characters in The Ice Storm are sad and pathetic and have no idea. The characters in American Beauty are sad and pathetic, but at least they know it. It is in this awareness where the film finds its humor and where it finds its cynicism. And, in the end, it is where American Beauty finds its existential and worthwhile theme.

I’m afraid though, even after all this, that I still wouldn’t be able to answer the question of whether I liked the film or not. I can tell you I admire it, I admire the acting and I admire the bravado of its delivery. It is a fresh voice from two newcomers. But, unfortunately, it is not a fresh idea. And that’s what would really be beautiful.

My rating: ***: Worth paying full price