American Beauty is extremely well acted, wildly disturbing, and refreshingly original. It is not a typical story about suburban life with mainstream content. Instead, it is deep, dark, and amusing. Director Sam Mendes, who emerges from the theater world, delivers a deep and thrilling story that is brilliantly captured and exhibits his visual technique.
Kevin Spacey plays a suburban husband named Lester Burnham, who even sees himself as a pathetic, ordinary husband who cannot find any connection with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) or daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Spacey’s brilliant performance begins to carry the impression of being the antagonist of the film, and viewers’ perceptions changes as the plotline unfolds. Lester is a husband who carries out his daily, unexciting life with sexual frustrations, troubles at work, and a distant relationship with his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, Carolyn ignores and dismisses her issues by listening to motivational tapes and self-esteem boosters all while breaking into tears as she remembers her disappointments in Lester and frustrations that are ruining their marriage.
Birch delivers a remarkable performance as the angst-ridden teenager Jane, whose connection with her parents has disappeared into a black hole, and the only communication she has with them is at the dinner table; especially if the topic of conversation is Angelina, a friend whom Lester becomes infatuated with. The seductive Angelina toggles with Lester’s character, as he always sees roses and falls under a spell when in her presence.
Although things seem twisted at this point, viewers realize that Lester is just a nostalgic man, wishing and wanting to return to his carefree adolescent years. This yearning is fulfilled with the help of the new next-door neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bently), a young man who videotapes everyone and everything, takes interest in Jane and also happens to provide drugs to Lester to help relieve his stress. With this “relief” Lester eventually returns to his teen job working at Mr.Smiley’s drive through, gains a little bit of respect from asparagus throwing, all while Carolyn carries out an affair with a fellow real estate agent. But all this “liberation” sadly comes to an end for Lester as his life takes a twisted turn and unexpectedly ends.
Spacey’s performance must be and should be applauded as he turns this ordinary man, into a lively underdog that we root for, odd as it seems, we want him to escape the disturbingly unhappy life and grow into the man he wants to be. Bening, playing the crazy and whiny, Carolyn, brings her character to a different level because she captures the essence of a female breadwinner whose marriage is far from salvageable. As for Thora Birch, she perfectly embodies the angry and hormonal teenager. The twisted issue each character has is far from ordinary and gives the film a mood of sadness, disturbance, yet liveliness.
Other critics have described this film as not a typical Hollywood film. Each performance has been sprinkled with comic relief that reminds us that they are real people going about life the best way they can. They want love, attention, and respect. This satirical suburban story emphasizes the idea that there is beauty in the breakdown. And while it can be a bothersome journey to watch, it is a piece that Sam Mendes made the audience want to be apart of, which is evidence of the film’s power.