First-time filmmaker Sam Mendes has won the hearts of critics and audiences alike, in what some are calling the most extraordinary cinematic directorial debut since Orson Welles' Citizen Kane in 1941. Sam Mendes' film, American Beauty, is a modern masterpiece and one of the seminal films of the last few decades. Mendes, who is perhaps best known for his revival of the stage production of Cabaret, brings all of his theatrical sensibilities to the screen and in doing so he has actually expanded the cinematic medium, and lifted the art of filmmaking to new heights of dramatic and comedic storytelling.
The screenplay for American Beauty was written by playwright and television writer Alan Ball, whose sharp sense of humor and poignant insights into the human condition combine to create a truly memorable filmic experience, as he slyly comments on the artifice and repression that is so common in contemporary suburban America.
With these two brilliantly creative figures working in collaboration, it's no great surprise that American Beauty should attract the attention of not only top studio heads, but also the brightest talents that the industry had to offer. However, it may come as a surprise that while most studio executives felt that the screenplay for American Beauty was exceptional, only one studio felt confident that the story could be brought to the screen in a commercially successful endeavor. That studio was Dreamworks, which was co-founded by Steven Spielberg, who loved the screenplay so much that he insisted it not be tampered with by any of the studio's executives. Spielberg was also instrumental in ensuring that the film wouldn't be just another quirky sleeper serio-comedy, but that it would actually reach its audience and experience the success that it deserved. And it did.
"My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I'm 42 years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead. Of course, I don't know that yet. And in a way, I'm dead already."
Lester Burnham woke up one morning to find himself completely dissatisfied with the way his life has turned out. He and his wife, the appearance-obsessed Carolyn, have drifted apart and they no longer understand each other. Lester's daughter, Jane, has grown resentful of her parents' unwanted attention and embarrassed by their pathetic attempts to relate to her. Lester's tired of his menial job as a magazine writer, where he's underpaid and under appreciated. But everything's about to change in the Burnhams' "perfect" suburban neighborhood.
When the Fitts family moves in next door to the Burnhams, no one has any idea that the seemingly unassuming family will affect them all, but they do.
Ricky Fitts, an intense, shy 18 year old, begins to spy on the happenings in the neighborhood and records much of what he sees with his video camera.
One night Lester and Carolyn go to a high school basketball game because Jane's part of the cheerleader squad, and though Lester only goes at Carolyn's insistence, he soon finds himself attracted to Jane's best friend, the seductive and vigorous Angela. Humiliated by her father's inappropriate crush, Jane isolates herself even more from her dysfunctional family. Lester begins fantasizing about Angela, and in some way she reminds him of what it was once like to be young.
Meanwhile Ricky starts following Jane, who can't help but find his sulking nature to be intriguing if not at time intimidating.
When Lester and Carolyn go out to dinner, Lester bumps into Ricky, who works at the restaurant. Ricky invites Lester to go out back behind the restaurant and smoke some marijuana, which he does relishing the opportunity to reclaim the "edge" that he lost when he had to grow up, get a job, and get married. While Lester and Ricky get high, Carolyn flirts with silver fox real estate salesman, Buddy Kane, who immediately takes a liking to her.
Lester soon rediscovers his youthful passions and he quits his job, takes up smoking pot regularly, starts exercising and getting back into shape, and most shocking of all, he starts standing up for himself. When Angela responds to Lester's newfound sense of self, Jane's frustration and disgust grow into outrage.
All the while Lester hangs out more with Ricky, though Ricky's father, Colonel Fitts, strongly disapproves.
As Lester tries to reclaim his life, Carolyn engages in a torrid affair with Buddy Kane. It's not long before Lester finds out and their marriage dissolves. Even as her parents drift irrevocably apart, Jane becomes romantically involved with Ricky, who turns out to be an intelligent, sensitive, albeit unusual young man.
Soon Lester will be murdered and everyone he leaves behind will have to grow up.
"I'd always heard that your entire life flashes in front of you're the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all. It stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars. And yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined our street. Or my grandmother's hands and the way her skin seemed like paper. And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's Firebird. And Janie. And Janie. And Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax… and stop trying to hold onto it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry. You will someday."
One of the advantages that director Sam Mendes had was his theatrical experience, which helped him to learn how to communicate with actors. This and the terrific screenplay together were the main reasons that Mendes was able to attract such an amazingly well rounded cast to the film. The film stars Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, Annette Bening as Carolyn Burnham, Thora Birch as Jane Burnham, Mena Suvari as Angela Hayes, Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts, Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts, Allison Janney as Mrs. Fitts, Peter Gallagher as Buddy Kane, Scott Bakula as Jim Olmeyer, and Sam Robards as Jim Berkley.
Kevin Spacey gives a hilarious and touching performance as Lester, and his voiceover narration is surprisingly absorbing and enhances the film where most voiceover narrating detracts from films. Annette Bening is superb as Lester's ego-driven, perfectionist wife, Carolyn. Thora Birch gives a powerful yet understated performance as Carolyn and Lester's daughter, Jane, and brings just the right amount of angst and insecurity to the role. Mena Suvari is a knockout as the outwardly seductive, confident, and flirtatious Angela, who hides her insecurities and sexual inexperience behind a veil of voluptuous conceit. Wes Bentley is pitch-perfect as the brooding, romantic, and emotionally troubled Ricky. And Chris Cooper is marvelous as Ricky's stern, ultra-conservative, homophobic father, Colonel Fitts. The rest of the film's cast also give great performances and manage to create multi-faceted characters despite having little actual time on screen.
Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball have enhanced the film with a dark sense of humor and still they preserve the overall emotional power of the story. Also adding to the film's effectiveness is the subtle use of symbolism and visual metaphors, which give the film a highly poetic, sensual quality.
Heightening this quality is the skillful cinematography by the experienced director of photography, Conrad L. Hall, who allows the camera to almost become a character in itself and, to a certain degree, it forms a symbiotic relationship with the viewers by giving them a near voyeuristic perspective of the characters as their lives fall apart.
American Beauty features an evocative score, which was composed by Thomas Newman, who captures the essence of the dysfunctional characters by using music cues that are appropriately quirky and upbeat, but also ominous, oppressive, and romantic. The soundtrack features an eclectic mix of artists and musicians, including Bob Dylan, The Who, Bobby Darin, The Guess Who, and Annie Lennox.
Truly a remarkable achievement, American Beauty was honored with numerous award nominations and wins, but more importantly it has won over the hearts of its audiences and has become a contemporary classic. All in all, American Beauty is a hard film to summarize or even categorize, being neither a comedy, drama, romance, nor tragedy, but rather a unique composite of all of the above. However, I will employ Lester's own evaluation and attempt to sum the film up in one word: "Spec-tac-ular."
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AMERICAN BEAUTY tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a suburban father who snaps when he becomes disgusted with his stale, repetitive existence. Burnham lets us know in voice-over from the film's opening that this is the day he dies (using the SUNSET BOULEVARD flashback approach), a technique that adds an inevitable tension to the proceedings and keeps the story moving forward at all times. On a whim, Lester quits his job and begins a regression into young adulthood, lifting weights, smoking pot, doing nothing, and discovering the overflowing sexuality of his 16-year-old daughter's best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), has her own midlife crisis of sorts. A real estate agent, she experiences a youthful awakening when super-agent Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) seduces her repeatedly. Meanwhile, Jane (Thora Birch), the Burnhams' daughter, is pursued by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the mysterious boy next door who carries a video camera around with him at all times. When ...