American Beauty (1999)

Direction: Sam Mendes

Written by: Alan Ball

Starring: KeviAmerican Beauty by Sam Mendesn Spacey, Annette Benning, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Alison Janney.

Plot: The story revolves around Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle aged man who despises his dead end job at a media company and is stuck in a loveless marriage with Carolyn (Annette Benning) an ultra-materialistic real estate agent obsessed with her career and material gains.  His family life is dull, vacant and in his own words “sedated”.  His relationship with his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is dejected if not as bad as it is with his wife.  He enters a midlife crisis and is unable to come out of it until he meets Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), an attractive teenager, who is a friend of Jane (much to her chagrin).  The second key person to enter his life is Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) an intelligent and mature boy with a violent and troubled past who moves in with his family to the house next door.  Upon befriending Lester they start smoking marihuana together and become friends.  This starts to wake up a happier and more carefree version of Lester who starts to work out, not caring about his job, smoking weed and listening to rock music.  He also adopts a more carefree and nonchalant attitude at home much to the shock of his puritanical wife.  Upon losing his job he applies for a position at a fast food franchise because he literally wants nothing to do with responsibility and with the severances package he obtains, buys himself the car of his childhood dreams A 1970 Pontiac Firebird and starts behaving like when he was a happy teenager “with his whole life ahead of him”.

Dinner scene in American Beauty

Ricky meanwhile though considered as a freak by Angela, has caught Jane´s attention and these two start dating.  She is attracted by his sensitive inner side and is gradually less impressed by Angela’s pretentious and manipulative attitude.  Soon Lester´s world around starts to collapse, as he sees it, there are hardly any “normal” people around him.

Critique: American Beauty is considered as one of the masterpieces of the end of the 20th Century.  It represents a direct attack into what the “American Dream” has become for a lot of people.  Throughout the story we see how families work harder in mending their front garden than on trying to communicate amongst themselves.  It brings forward how corporate life has become dull and unchallenging, and how appearances matter more than honesty, self-worth and being happy with what one does.  It also touches themes such as the failure of the Western concept of family values, repression, emasculation, materialism, sexuality and the pursuit of happiness.

Main Characters:

Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham in American Beuaty

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) – Lester is the film´s main character and around whom most of the other characters revolve.  He lives a dull and boring life.  He is stuck in a dead end job at a media company where he doesn´t feel valued and sees how he is being stepped over by a younger and more aggressive executive.  At home his relationship with his wife is cold and sexless bordering frequently on openly hostile.  His relationship with his teenage daughter is hardly any better with her not hiding her disappointment in the boring and distant father he has become.  Through Jane he meets her friend Angela, a flirtatious and attractive teenager and immediately feels aroused by her.  Whenever they are in the same room he clumsily flirts with her much to his daughter´s embarrassment.  He meets Ricky Fitts with whom he bonds instantly having more in common with him than with most grownups.  Thanks to Ricky he obtains marihuana and starts to smoke weed on a daily basis.  He also starts to work out to impress Angela.  He constantly laments where his life went and upon losing his job uses the severances package to buy a sports car and applies for a job at a fast food franchise.  He openly disregards any form of responsibility associated with his role as an adult and a father.  Much to his wife´s shock he starts to behave openly confrontational of her emasculating attitude towards him.  As the story evolves we see the irony of how the middle aged man who sheds all responsibility and starts to act as a teenager is probably the most “normal” person in the whole story.

Carolyn Hayes (Annette Benning) – Carolyn is Lester’s overbearing wife.  She works as a real estate agent and openly considers herself Annette Benning in American Beautymore successful and therefore more worthy than her husband.  Outwardly we see a confident, materialistic and career driven mother.  However deep inside she is unhappy, frustrated and incredibly insecure.  Her self-esteem is only reinforced with professional rewards (like when she sells a house).  When failing to do so, she punishes herself to the extent of slapping her own face and crying when no one is watching.  Her relationship with Lester is as good as dead.  They no longer enjoy being together to the extent that she finds his few sexual advances repulsive.  She no longer respects him and has no remorse in publicly emasculating him in front of their daughter.  As a mother she fails to communicate with her daughter on the simplest of levels due to her hidden traumas.  Her self-esteem is so low that she is easily impressed with a rival estate agent; a shallow man obsessed with projecting an image of success rather than being honest or hardworking and the two begin an extramarital affair behind Lester´s back.

Jane Hayes (Thora Birch) – Jane is a Lester´s daughter, a teenager with her own personality and insecurities and who occasionally sees aghast how her parents bicker over minor problems and seem to forget to give her any kind of attention.  Thora Birch in American BeautyShe appears as a sensitive young girl who longs for outside approval, be it her parents, her friend Angela or society in general.  Due to her insecurities she doesn’t consider herself attractive enough and is considering going through breast augmentation surgery.  Angela´s egocentric attitude and her father behaving like a teenage buffoon when she is around the house make her feel unappreciated and misplaced.  Meeting Ricky changes her gradually her gloomy mood; he is the first person who actually pays her attention for who she is and she feels intrigued by the mysterious new boy in school with the rumored dark past.  She feels attracted towards him because of his inner sensitive side and begins to conspire to run away with him and start a life together.

american beauty mena suvariAngela Hayes (Mena Suvari) – Angela first appears as Jane´s close friend.  At first sight she seems to represent the ideal American girl, good looking, confident and friendly when speaking to her friend´s parents, popular, a cheerleader.  She however represents the shocking contradiction that this prefabricated image of the ideal girl is far from real happiness.  Her good looks weigh on her and she brags about older men she has had sex with when she does photo shoots as an amateur model.  She appears shallow when judging others and dismisses anyone like Ricky who dares to be different.  Even though Jane initially considers her a friend she uses her to boost her ego.  Upon realizing that Lester has a crush on her she openly flirts back with him without caring for Jane´s feelings.

Wes Bentley American BeautyRicky Fitts (Wes Bentley) – Ricky is a teenage boy who moves into the house next to Lester´s.  A curious, intelligent and sensitive boy he enjoys recording home videos with his video camera.  He is surprisingly a resourceful person considering his age. Unbeknownst to his father he is a drug dealer and has numerous clients who help him out with the odd favor.  He has thousands of dollars saved up and deals with highly expensive marihuana of the best quality which impresses Lester.  His maturity and self-confidence catch Lester´s attention who befriends him immediately.  His family life is incredibly miserable.  His father is an ex-marine with an obsessive attitude controlling every movement his son makes and who has occasionally hit him violently.  He himself has a dark violent past where he was sent to a “hospital” when he beat another boy to a pulp two years before.  Upon recording his surroundings with his video camera one day he stumbles with Jane whom he finds interesting and feels attracted towards her.  He also likes Lester and gets along with him.

Chris Cooper American BeautyFrank Fitts (Chris Cooper) –Frank is Ricky’s violent and obsessive father.  He is a retired marine who finds it hard to adjust to his neighborhood.  He has close ties with a Nazi society and openly displays his disapproval of homosexuality by criticizing a gay couple who live nearby.  He wants to rule his household with an iron fist and does not accept anyone contradicting him.  His over abrasive behavior and obsession with controlling everything are in fact a façade to hide some unbearable secret that has being eating him up inside most of his life.

American Beauty alison janneyBarbara Fitts (Alison Janney) – Barbara is Ricky’s introverted mother.  Most of the time she hardly utters a word, yet through her silence the viewer best understands all the pain and misery that dominate his family life.  She appears extremely absent minded most of the time and even though it is never explained it would be no surprise if she has suffered an excessive amount of electro shock therapies in the past (something very common in the 60’s with women who expressed their unhappiness in their married life).  We know that Ricky and her share a silent and yet powerful bond where they support each other in their pain.

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