The suburbs can be a fascinating place in America. On the surface it seems idyllic, with its white picket fences, happy parents who love their kids, and perfectly mowed grass. However you don’t have to dig too deep to find kids selling drugs, crumbling marriages, and middle-aged husbands having fantasies about their daughter’s friend in the cheerleading squad. Such is the suburb depicted in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) featuring Kevin Spacey as one of many men from that world having a mid-life, and potentially existential, crisis. However you have to admire the fact his character seems intent on having not just a regular crisis, but the mother of all mid-life crises.
Mendes’ film went on to win four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor, which at the time I found quite surprising because I was really pinning for The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington as Ruben Carter. I was having a hard time understanding how a movie about a dead-beat dad could be better than a story about a wrongly imprisoned boxer who inspired Bob Dylan to write his whole story in song form. I still think Denzel Washington gave the better performance, but last year I decided to give American Beauty its day in court when it became available on Netflix. Verdict: great cast, pitch-black humour, a solid third act, and the story has interesting things to say about materialism, repression and parenting.
On paper Lester Burnham (Spacey) should be happy. He has a good paying job as an advertising executive and writer, a good house in the suburbs, and has a wife and daughter. Unfortunately like many people he finds no joy in his job anymore, his sex life with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is non-existent, and their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) just can’t wait to be old enough to leave them behind. Even worse, Lester is narrating these facts from beyond the grave since he is now deceased. That’s no spoiler since he tells this minutes into the opening of the movie.
Before getting into Lester inevitable demise, the audience learns more about the people around him who are hiding just as many secrets as he is. Carolyn puts on a brave face everyday before trying to sell a house nobody wants, and eventually decides to release stress by having an affair with her business rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Living across the street from the Burnhams are the Fitts, whose family patriarch Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is an authoritarian homophobe. His son Ricky (Wes Bentley) fancies himself an artistic filmmaker, but that doesn’t pay much so he sells weed under his father’s nose.
Lester embarks on a quest towards self-liberation by developing a pretty creepy obsession for his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) after zeroing in on her during a cheerleading show. With the goal to become his best version, he starts working out in his garage, quits his boring job and goes to work at the fast food place of his youth, and of course trades in his family car for a sports car. Also, he becomes one of Ricky’s best customers using the horror film Re-Animator as a code for their drug transaction.
Is Lester being selfish? Certainly, but at least for the first time in a long time he is being honest. His likability is greatly helped by Spacey who as a performer can make the most devious of sociopaths come off as charismatic. Say what you want about his murderous Frank Underwood on House of Lies, but when that man talks you listen. In this movie Spacey conveys an emerging anger and energy as Lester blackmails his boss and shatters dishes at the dinner table while demanding someone pass the damn asparagus plate.
Spacey’s character was not the only one to show a streak of rebellion towards society at the end of the 90s. In 1999 alone you had Ron Livingston suddenly not caring about his boss and TPS reports in Office Space, and there was Edward Norton who in response to consumer culture started beating people up in Fight Club. Like these characters, Lester’s rebellion is somewhat short sighted. Working at the fast food joint of his youth will not make him 20 years old again, and sleeping with a cheerleader, even if she is not against the idea, would bring infinitely more trouble than its worth. Alan Ball’s script is smart enough to address these issues and the consequences of Lester’s actions in the third act.
Clearly American Beauty was a good indicator of the cultural zeitgeist at the time, but it seems just as relevant today. The world may seem more open and diverse, but there are still plenty of people who feel pressure to conform into what the world expects of them and are just on the edge of exploding.