“American Beauty” is the story of one “average” family that turns out to be not so average upon closer inspection. Lester Burnham (Spacey) is an average family man, who decides one day to make some changes in his boring, uneventful life. These changes on the surface could easily fall under the category of “midlife-crisis” but when delved into deeper they are really a form of “rebirth”, almost an awakening. His wife (Benning) ignores him, his daughter (Birch) resents him and the lack of respect from his colleagues makes his home life seem bearable. Basically his life is like every other married man … until he meets his daughters best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). She brings something into his life that had been nonexistent … vitality. This new found vitality seems to bring on even more animosity from his family … or maybe just jealousy.
These few scenarios are just the beginning of an extremely lurid character study of a family and their environment. The film works so well because of one basic fact … the characters are real. These charactes are just people, all have problems, each with anguish and still they all contain something that is interesting and likable.
“American Beauty” is the first serious Oscar contender of 1999. This beautifully made feature film is the debut of British director Sam Mendes. It’s ensemble cast is first rate, with the likes of Kevin Spacey (“Usual Suspects”), Annette Benning (“The American President”), Thora Birch (“Now & Then”), Peter Gallagher (“Malice”) & Chris Cooper (“Lone Star”).
Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball both obviously know the one thing that most filmmakers do not … characters matter. You get to know each character and whenever you learn something new you feel better for the character. This film is full of great performances, not the least of which is Kevin Spacey. Look for this film to get Oscar nominations in Writing, Picture, Cinematography, Directing and noms for Spacey and, as the longshot, newcomer Wes Bentley. Do not overlook “American Beauty” because of Dreamworks less-than-stellar marketing campaign. It is a great film and will definitely be regarded as one of the best films of the 90’s … right next to “Titanic”.