Suburbia was born in post-World War II prosperity, and symbolized, at least partly, the pursuit of the American dream. Bedroom communities sprang up all over the country as city dwellers left urban areas by the station wagon full in search of big houses and big yards, in search of an unknown ideal. The pursuit of happiness is the classic American motto and is the heart of American Beauty.
Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a suburban everyman getting restless. Slowly becoming estranged from his job and family, he masks his discontent by being a smart ass. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a shrill real estate executive wannabe, more concerned with couch upholstery than being human. Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is the sort of aloof teenager you’d expect from a union like theirs.
Everything changes when Lester beholds the sight of Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Suddenly his life has meaning: to woo the cheerleader. He starts working out in the garage. Then he meets the new neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), and his life takes another turn. Ricky intensely but quietly pursues Jane, while continuing his personality charade to appease his Nazi father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper). Carolyn meanwhile turns her attention to local real estate big cheese Brady Kane (Peter Gallagher), who reinforces her opinion that the appearance of success is everything. In short, American Beauty is a messed up, 90’s casserole of suburbia that makes Knots Landing look like Walton’s Mountain.
American Beauty is a dark, comedic look inside the lives of those on the tree-lined streets of a nameless town. For all of the grim overtones and foretelling of tragedy, American Beauty is very funny. A lot of what will make audiences laugh will also make them cringe. Expertly written by Alan Ball, this is not a shy movie.
The performances are, for the most part, outstanding. Kevin Spacey is the perfect wisecracking malcontent. His pursuit of beauty is both literal and metaphorical, and his transformation is hilarious and poignant. The three teenage performances are, for my money, the best in the movie. Mena Suvari’s performance as slut-icon Angela is so believable that it’s frightening. I hope it was a stretch for her. Thora Birch is heartbreaking and stubborn as the confused yet somehow above it all Jane. Wes Bentley is mesmerizing as Ricky Fitts. It’s understandable that Jane is drawn to his steady gaze and it’s fascinating to watch their relationship progress. Annette Bening, however, interprets her character too broadly. She is borderline comic book with her shrewish, over-the-top performance. The Colonel Fitts character is also too much of a caricature, though Chris Cooper is outstanding.
The tragedy that unfolds at the conclusion of American Beauty is foretold, but still comes across as too tidy. The movie touches on serious human issues but it ultimately takes the easy way out. Still, it’s a movie that sticks with you long after you leave the theater. It admirably and effectively scratches the superficial surface of contemporary suburban living to show that all is not as it seems. Appearances are most definitely not everything. American Beauty is one for the time capsule.
+ David Kern