This movie has such a simple premise, it’s really just about a man, Lester (Kevin Spacey), who goes through a mid life crisis. The brilliant cast and great dialogue, from a script by Alan Ball, elevate this movie to Oscar winning material. Everyone in this cast shines brighter than they have before. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening lead the way as a seemingly happy couple, but beneath the cracks their marriage has massive issues. She wants to have it all, mostly so that people can see her having it all. So when Lester starts going through a mid life crisis and loses his job, it doesn’t help her image and causes friction between the couple.
The weak links in this movie could’ve been the teenager actors, but they are all really good here. Mena Suvari had only really done American Pie before this was released. American Beauty is a massive step up from a teenage gross out comedy, and Suvari steps up as the sexy object of Lester’s fantasies. Thora Birch is Lester and Carolyn’s daughter, Jane. She is awkward and shy, until she meets the new next door neighbour boy played by Wes Bentley. Both Birch and Bentley play their parts as awkward teenagers finding young love well. Bentley is particularly good, coming across as a creepy stalker until Jane gets him to open up more. All three teenage roles are really well done. They do well not to be completely overshadowed by Kevin Spacey in his Oscar winning role as Lester.
The dialogue in this film is amazing. The script won Alan Ball an Oscar and it’s easy to see why. There is so many witty retorts from Spacey, especially when he’s conversing with Bening.
This film was obviously released as Oscar bait, trying to sweep as many of the awards as it could. The film accomplishes that really well. The fantastic cast and brilliant dialogue elevate American Beauty from your regular dramas. It is one of the best movies of the late 90s.
I first saw this movie when it was released on VHS about 14 years ago. It’s hard to believe it’s that old.
But then, the people presented in American Beauty are timeless characters that will always resonate: the unhappy husband who finally stands up for himself; the wife who hides her own unhappiness behind a facade of perfection; an insecure teenage girl trying to fit in; her friend who hides her own insecurities by flaunting her sexuality; a violently homophobic man in denial about his own sexuality; his son, who is perceived as a strange social outcast but is actually the most self-aware of them all.
The film’s oft repeated sentiment, “there’s nothing worse than being ordinary,” is ironic. All of these characters are ordinary. They live in your neighborhood, attend your church, go to your kid’s school. There’s a reason why Hollywood continues to revisit these themes, and will continue to do so. There will always be Lesters, Carolines, and Janes in this world. People who are deeply unhappy. Who hide behind their careers and their accumulated material wealth. Families who have achieved “The American Dream,” but lost each other in the process.
American Beauty is wonderfully written, beautifully filmed, and masterfully acted. Even when you are frustrated by the characters’ choices, you are compelled to watch. By the end, you really feel for every one of these people, even those who have acted reprehensible throughout the film. Everyone here is to blame for their own hardships, and yet, somehow it’s not really their fault. It’s a tricky tightrope, but this movie walks it so well.