Original US release date: September 15, 1999
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $356,296,601
American Beauty is the 2000 Academy Award winner for Best Picture from director Sam Mendes, in what was his first directorial outing. I saw the film shortly after its release and I recall thinking it was fine, but I didn’t have the experience – neither in life or in film studies – to fully appreciate the level of artistry that the film puts on display. The re-watch for this column was an eye-opener and I felt as if I was watching it for the first time, even though I remembered many of the pertinent events of the narrative.
Mendes and writer Alan Ball are adept enough to insert the film’s hook into the opening voiceover dialogue, letting the viewer know right away how the story ends (which I won’t do, in case you haven’t seen it). Without that seemingly minor creative choice, the film would have lacked any semblance of momentum. But, with it, every single scene, every single line of dialogue, and every single facial expression carries weight and meaning. This film is about the journey, not the destination. And, oh, what a journey it is.
An extremely generalized synopsis of American Beauty would likely state that it tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) as he enters into a midlife crisis. But there’s much more going on than that. There’s not a single likable character in the entire movie (with the possible exception of Allison Janney’s Barbara, but “sympathetic” is a better word than “likable” for her), but that’s largely the point. The film presents a group of people to the audience that have lived their entire lives for other people, and not for themselves. That, in and of itself, is representative of America. Most of us Americans live for money or for the approval of our dad or for the cute girl or guy that works at Starbucks or for the likes that we want to get on our social media pages in order to make ourselves feel important or successful. We define ourselves by the opinions of others. It’s the modern American way, and it has been for a while.
This message conveyed by the film went completely over my head in all of my previous viewings (maybe two or three, all a very long time ago) and I feel bad about that. But, hey, you live and you learn. And that’s what these characters all struggle to do. They yearn to break out of their self-imposed chains but have no idea how to accomplish it. So, they’re all miserable. They hate each other and they hate themselves. Heck, they hate each other because they hate themselves. Only when and if they can learn to start living as and for themselves – and no one or nothing else – can they achieve the inner peace and happiness that they’ve always desired. Until then, no one else will ever love – or even like – them. Yet, they all keep throwing the proverbial “stuff” at the wall to see what sticks. They reach out to everyone else around them in desperate efforts to gain their approval, all the while perfectly content to compromise themselves in order to make it happen. They lack individuality. They lack conviction. They lack confidence. And they search in all the wrong places to find those things because they look outward instead of inward.
Despite all the misery going around in American Beauty, the film is not entirely devoid of humor. It’s a dark humor, but a humor, nonetheless. The dialogue is crisp, sharp, and interesting. And each scene is more compelling than the last as the film marches steadily towards its inevitable conclusion. The cast is impeccable, with Spacey and Annette Bening leading the way. Both of them earned Academy Award nominations for Lead Actor/Actress (with Spacey winning) but the rest of the cast hold their own, as well. The film is expertly crafted on all fronts and a story this poignant demands straightforward but elegant storytelling, and that’s what American Beauty provides.
I failed to properly appreciate American Beauty up until this viewing. As relevant now as it was 18 years ago (holy crap!), the film more than stands the test of time with a resonant message, timeless performances, and a perplexingly entertaining presentation in the face of some truly mortifying family dynamics that are downright uncomfortable more often than they aren’t. But that’s this film. This film takes the viewer out of their comfort zone in order to relay its portent and asks that a supposedly mature audience (it’s an R-rated film, after all) will be strong enough to allow themselves to be taken there. If you’re among the willing, you ultimately will find beauty in this film and you’ll find it in the most unexpected of places – just like life.
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