Original release: September 17th, 1999
Running time: 122 minutes
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Alan Ball
Composer: Thomas Newman
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper
You wana see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?01:01:55 to 01:05:00
There’s something missing in our lives. Despite all the things we have; the gadgets, the antidepressants, and the endless stream of information that filters through the internet to sell us things to make us happy – we’re just not getting there. Many of us fee emptier on the inside than we’ve ever felt at any other time in our lives before, so what’s the deal? Why do we feel this way and how can we fix it?
American Beauty was one the last thoughtful films we saw coming out of the late 1990’s. It took us all by surprise. Alan Ball’s brilliantly written screenplay told so much about the American middleclass and how appearances can be deceiving. Brought to life by Sam Mendes’ direction and a stellar cast, including a breakthrough performance by a young Wes Bentley, it’s nothing less than what its title suggests.
It begins with Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) as he introduces us to his life and tells us he’ll be dead in a year’s time, although he doesn’t know it. He’s 42 years old and stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage with estate agent Carolyn (Annette Bening). They have a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), but she’s can’t stand him because he turns into an idiot when her best friend Angela (Mena Suvari) is around.
Yet Lester isn’t the only one with a life he feels unable to control. Everyone else is doing their best to keep up appearances. Carolyn constantly strides for perfection but is never anywhere near achieving it; especially when she doesn’t sell any houses.
Next door a new family have moved in. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a retired Colonel and homophobe who tries to run things at home the same way he did in the army. His son Ricky (Wes Bentley) is terrified of him and although he has to submit to a urine test every six months to prove he’s drug free, he sells pot to make money on the side. Ricky likes to film things and even though Jane’s a little scared of him at first, she’s drawn to him and the way he looks at life. He shows her what he calls “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed”; a 15 minute video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind.
It’s a compelling, thoughtful and moving scene, one of many in the film. Sitting on his bed, next to Jane, Ricky tells her about the day he filmed it.
As they watch it, his eyes become filled with tears and his voice breaks with emotion. Jane looks at him and after a moment, takes his hand. Then she leans in and kisses him softly on the lips. Ricky’s sentiments will later be reflected on from beyond by Lester in his farewell speech, making this scene a pivotal one in the film, As Anker notes in Catching Light: Looking For God In The Movies.
Anker later on says,
Meanwhile, Eshelman remarks that the plastic bag is only the filmed reproduction of the original which Ricky plays again because he “needs to remember”.
When Lester decides to get his life back from the abysmal hole it’s being sucked into, he quits his job and blackmails his boss into giving him a severance package. He starts working out and smoking pot which he buys from Ricky. His entire manner changes and he’s no longer the husband Carolyn can boss around, bark at and humiliate. He also continues to fantasise about Angela; could she be the thing he’s missing in his life?
Carolyn starts an affair with business rival, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), and spends her afternoons screwing him before taking up gun practice to let off any remaining frustration left inside her. When the married couple sit down to dinner, the tension’s so thick even a knife won’t cut it.
They go from one irresponsible and extreme decision to the next, hoping to fill the miserable void in their lives without knowing how it got there in the first place. Even Buddy admits his perfect life is just a show; his wife’s just left him and he too is running low on self esteem.
As Ricky and Jane get closer, he films her saying she’d like someone to kill her dad. Things start to get complicated all round when Frank gets the wrong idea about Ricky and Lester. After beating up his son again and then kicking him out for thinking he’s a “cocksucker”, Frank pays Lester a visit. At the same time Carolyn’s sitting in her car with a gun. Unknown to any of them, Ricky’s upstairs asking Jane to run away with him and when Angela tries to stop them, she gets a few home truths thrown her way.
With everything coming to a head, we also know it’s Lester’s last day. What’s left to see is whether or not in those final moments he finds the thing that’s been missing from his life.
Ever since the first time I saw American Beauty, I found myself captivated by what Ricky said when he showed Jane his video. His way of looking at the world is the complete moral opposite of Lester, Carolyn, Buddy, Frank and Angela’s.
Whereas they see their weaknesses and insecurities as ugly parts of themselves and they put on a show for those around them, Ricky sees something else. He thinks the masks they wear are what’s ugly, like Angela’s painted face; her smile doesn’t compare to Jane’s because it’s part of the lie she’s projecting about herself. When they’re honest, like Jane is, that’s when they’re at their most vulnerable and beautiful and that’s why he likes to film; to capture and remember the beauty of life.
Sometimes that’s all that’s missing; we forget to stop, look around and remember there’s so much beauty around us. If we could just let go of all the things we think we need we need, and the notions we feel we have to conform to, maybe we’d see it too.
Lester finds it, though he could’ve found it a lot sooner, but like he said, it’s never too late. In the end he says he “can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…” and assures us; though we might not have any idea what he’s talking about, we will someday.
It’s an incredible and life affirming film that holds a mirror up to society, forcing it to look at itself and see how ugly it’s become…forcing us to look at ourselves and see what we’ve become. American Beauty also tells us there’s more to our lives than we think; we just have to look closer and see the beauty that’s hiding.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .