American Beauty (1999)

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Alan Ball

American Beauty just seems like an iconic film. The images associated with it, the title itself just drips classic film, and I don’t know why, I had never seen it before. It gets some discussion, but not as much as the established “classics” and the reason for that is obvious, it was released in 1999, just 12 years ago, which doesn’t seem like that long ago when put into perspective with the history of film. But it remains that American Beauty was the year’s Best Picture winning. In fact, it won 5 Oscars that year, more than any other film. And sure, not a whole lot of stock is put in who wins what at the Academy Awards each year, I mean The Social Network lost to The King’s Speech last year, but that is a whole separate discussion altogether, so now let me focus solely on this film.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is an unhappy 40-something man who has been working for a magazine for 14 years. He is in a loveless marriage that has seen better days with Carolyn (Annette Bening), a mediocre real estate agent who is equally unhappy, even if she hides it in her pursuit of suburban perfection. Their daughter is Jane (Thora Birch), who it seems is almost ashamed to be their daughter. Her best friend Angela (Mena Suvari) is a pretty girl whom Lester lusts after, which disturbs Jane, but seems to turn Angela on a little bit. Meanwhile the Fitts family has moved in next door. Ricky (Wes Bentley) is the son who makes his money dealing pot and loves to film things, particularly Jane. His father is Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Chris Cooper). He is a tough son of a gun who is extremely prejudiced against homosexuals. Watch as they interact and crazy things happen!

Kevin Spacey owns the screen in this film, which is a hard thing considering he is surrounded by Annette Bening and Chris Cooper. Yes, this film is chock full of great performances from a great ensemble cast. Everyone seems to work in their roles, even Birch, Suvari and Bentley who have not gone on to great things since deliver seemingly perfect performances with the right amount of emotion and teenage angst/immaturity, with Bentley being the best, and Suvari excelling at the latter. But like I said, Kevin Spacey owns the screen as Lester. This is one of those performances that seems so natural that it’s scray. I have been a big fan of Spacey and this just solidifies it as I think this is perhaps one of the best performances of the last 25 years. Just great, and what is more, Annette Bening gives an amazing performance as his opposite and significant other. The performances alone make this film worth watching.

But the film is better than just the performances. The cinematography and score were two other major parts of the film that really sold me. To start, Conrad Hall’s photography of this film is stunning. He makes some of the best choices imaginable for some of the sequences. The lighting and framing of every scene seems to be perfect and, along with the wonderful direction by Mendes, the fantasy sequences, which make this the iconic film that I mentioned before, are shot so beautifully. And adding to that “beauty” is the music score, which was composed by Thomas Newman. It is one of those scores that fits and meshes with the film so seamlessly that it seems as if they were meant to be from the beginning of time.

Everything comes together to make a compelling family drama that works on any number of levels. To be sure all of the characters are a little off their rockers and in need of some serious adjustments, but at the heart of the story is a moral that goes underused by most Americans, and even seems to fly under the radar in the film, which is just what this film needs in its message, subtlety, because the rest of it certainly isn’t. But I am not complaining because I loved pretty much everything I saw in this film. It was great compelling family drama done beautifully both on the technical side, and on the storytelling side. But I just can’t seen to shake one thought after seeing this film: I just feel so bad for Allison Janney’s character on so many levels.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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