It begins with the voice over of a dead man. If you recall, Billy Wilder’s black comic masterpiece Sunset Blvd. also begins with narration courtesy of a corpse. Like William Holden and Gloria Swanson in American Beauty‘s cinematic ancestor, the film finds the flailing suburban bore Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) dangerously mismatched with the manic energy of his ambitious but quickly aging wife Carolyn (Annette Bening). As we’ve been told, their marriage will lead to murder, but we realize that the film’s outcome is less eventful than the events that transpire – a madcap mix of Altman-esque ensemble juggling, Hitchockian voyeurism, Howard Hawks-style screwball misunderstandings, and the seductive wiles of American beauty in all its pulp and profundity.
Lester and Carolyn live in a perfect white picket fence pocket of suburbia. Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), hopes she’ll one day transcend the cookie cutter doldrum of her parents’ consumer conformity – Lester is a disengaged magazine writer, while Carolyn is a not-so-well-to-do real estate agent. Jane is accompanied everywhere by two disparate entities who might as well sit on her shoulder as angel and devil. The devil comes in the form of Angela (Mena Suvari), a sex-obsessed cheerleader who everyone agrees is the school’s American Beauty – though ‘everyone’ unfortunately includes Lester, who begins fantasizing about leaving Carolyn for the high school student. :Jane’s angel is the strange and distant Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who blatantly stalks her and records her family with a camcorder. Jane sees that he is sweet, and earnest, and that he thinks she is genuinely beautiful and not just attractive.
Conveniently enough, Ricky’s family has just moved into the house next door to the Burnhams, which allows for sequences reminiscent of the voyeurism of Rear Window – and, in the film’s final act, a misunderstanding so egregious that it becomes the catalyst for change in all of the characters’ lives. Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), keeps his son under a restrictive and punishing fascist household regime. Nobody but Chris Cooper could play someone with such vitriol and hatred without becoming cartoonish. When the gay couple on the street – Jim and Jim, of course – come to present the Fitts with a welcome-to-the-street basket, Colonel Fitts asks what the “partners” are selling. The joke works because of Cooper’s seamless line delivery, which feigns confusion and quiet indignation.
Spacey and Bening play their roles to absolute perfection. The eerie menace with which Spacey spits his lines in films like The Usual Suspects and Se7en here morphs into a penchant for the acerbic and sarcastic. Here’s a character that’s bored, but never dull or distant, and morally repugnant, but never evil or depraved. Bening gives the trickier – and, might I be so bold to say better – performance of playing a woman so phony who on occasion reveals herself to be so very, very human. Do you want to know what complete and utter disappointment looks like? Stare at Annette Bening’s face this whole movie.
Also remarkable is the talented trio of young actors American Beauty catapulted to fame, though their careers have since faltered. Thora Birch, who brings vulnerability and anger to the role of Jane, has largely faded into obscurity, though Mena Suvari has found success in her continued participation in the American Pie series. Wes Bentley is here magnificent as Ricky Fitts, and worthy of retrospective Best Supporting Actor consideration for his restrained and empathetic performance, but he fell into a life of drugs and alcohol. Bentley emerged early last year, however, for a supporting turn in popular young adult film adaptation The Hunger Games.
Director Sam Mendes’s serene compositions and use of protracted long takes lead to a mise en scène that deliberately contrasts with Alan Ball’s snarky, satirical script. There’s an appropriate sense of wonder to every shot in American Beauty, even as the story highlights the depravity of the film’s remote, lustful subjects. Thomas Newman’s score makes you feel as though you’re adrift in a quietly churning sea – despair, catharsis, love, lust all fold into a shimmering vortex of, well, beauty.
Roses appear in many shots of the film, most famously in Lester’s lascivious fantasy encounters with Angela. They symbolize each character’s desires, both subconscious and unconscious – Lester’s for Angela, Carolyn’s to hide her life’s imperfections in consumerism and conformity (themes also confronted in 1999’s landmark Fight Club). The absurd luxury furnishings and floral adornments of the Burnham house deliberately contrast the stark, modern functionality of Ricky’s bedroom, which is a shrine to his perception of beauty. The Fitts’ home, though more modestly decorated, is filled with hidden motives and secrets as well – Ricky’s stash of marijuana, Colonel Fitts’ Nazi memorabilia, and the never-discussed mental atrophy of Fitts matriarch Barbara (Allison Janney). The payoff for Colonel Fitts’ story arc comes in the final act, in which he exhumes one buried secret before establishing the most crucial hiding spot in the film.
What is the true meaning of beauty? Perhaps it is the girl you chase but can never have. Perhaps it is the way the asparagus lies perfectly on your antique china set as a standard plays. Maybe it’s the way the yellow leaves on your street shudder on a cold autumn afternoon. Maybe it’s when you look into the eyes of a dead man, smiling peacefully, and God stares back at you. Or perhaps it’s a trash bag blowing in the wind. It is wondrous to behold and impossible to catch. It means nothing at all, and absolutely everything.