To some extent, American Beauty is hard to classify or quantify. You can see it from numerous perspectives, as many critics, film theorists and just plain fans have done over the last almost two decades since it blew most of them away, going on to sweep up five Academy Awards. It’s an unusual fusion of jet black comedy, introspective sadness, spiritual elegy and satirical examination of the American Dream. Sam Mendes, before this only having existed in the spectrum of theatre, if highly respected, saw within the promise of not just drama but laughter, able to punch up and bring out Alan Ball’s truly remarkable screenplay. His film principally concerns the last few days of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged suburbanite who, on the face of it, has it all – a secure job, a beautiful house, a successful wife, a teenage daughter; his story concerns an awakening, in mind, body and soul, as he realises he has existed within a bubble of societal reinforcement. American Beauty is about seeing beyond the veil of life, peering into your own fears and anxieties, and the transformative process that comes from it.
Ball wrote a great about his own life and experiences, his own moments of realisation and understanding in a world we’re not quite meant to understand. Lester ‘gets it’ after he dies, which we know is coming (if not how) right from the first frame, a spectral voice over from the magnificent Kevin Spacey chirpily making us realise he’s never been more at peace. Ball instantly gives us hope, not that it was his design – he wrote this filled with deep cynicism and frustration at his life and the world, having been in Lester’s shoes, bored in life and unable to fulfil his passions.
Mendes brings out a certain wish fulfilment in Lester that we all aspire to, and Spacey delights in – he blackmails his job to give him a year’s pay as they’re about to lay him off, he starts doing weed almost openly, rebels against his wife’s strictures & routines, and begins vividly fantasising about seducing his daughter’s best friend. Mendes edges this away from sleaze—as does Ball—by creating rather sumptuous, almost trippy imagery such as roses pouring from Mena Suvari’s body that serve to be romantic in a twisted, sexualised way. The film in many respects is defined by its approach to repressed sexuality, serving as a microcosm of the bigger satirical, sociological beats it covers.
Take Lester’s wife Carolyn, played equally wonderfully to the brink by Annette Bening—who Mendes fought to cast over more established and traditional leading ladies—who serves as the counterpoint to Lester’s own frustrations; she was once carefree, once alive, yet became entrapped by her own vision of what constitutes success. Infidelity with Peter Gallagher’s slick real estate agent is her only outlet, her escape, her passion, but it doesn’t solve the materialistic problem at the heart of her life. Ball’s writing seeps with anger at modern society’s constant obsession with “stuff” as Lester disparagingly calls it, and Carolyn typifies the mistaken, very American, belief that accumulation means satisfaction.
Their daughter Jane is caught in the middle – Thora Birch nicely plays a tricky role, a young girl battling with the typical insecurities and awkwardness of her age (Suvari’s best friend Angela the typical pretty, blonde but over-compensating normal girl), aware she could become her mother but drawn to Wes Bentley’s quiet, poised, unnerving ‘weirdo’ Ricky, her new next door neighbour who sees past ‘existence’ and captures the quiet beauty of ‘life’. If Mendes’ film is remembered for anything, it’s the shot of the paper bag flying in the wind on home video, as Ricky breaks down to Thomas Newman’s hauntingly tragic score. Normality, sex, repression and beauty all conspire into one tragic mix ultimately, with the screenplay never forgetting the smaller, crucial roles that make up the whole – Chris Cooper, in particular, is magnificent as Ricky’s violent, repressed military father.
Something about American Beauty, on first viewing, made me cry. That hasn’t happened since but there’s a feeling the audience can glimpse a certain element of beauty by watching Sam Mendes’ film. Alan Ball’s writing often reaches into you and pulls at truth, personalising in what his wonderfully drawn characters say as Mendes compliments by what they see, what they make you feel. It’s an unusual fusion of high drama, moments of melodrama even, with haunting sobriety and laugh out loud comedy, at times even edging toward the goofy – but it’s a concoction you struggle to forget. It breathes whimsy from small moments, sadness and levity from others, and as a parable to living in a world where life sweeps us along, it’s frequently a masterpiece. Cinema rarely feels so beautiful.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tony Black / @blackholemedia
This review first appeared on Letterboxd on August 16th, 2015.