The deeper American Beauty tries to get, the shallower it reveals itself to be.
The feature debut of Sam Mendes (Jarhead, Away We Go, Skyfall), who is working from an original script by Alan Ball, this is a particularly embittered entry in the suburban satire genre. Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, a middle-class mope who’s berated by his high-strung wife Carloyn (Annette Bening, desperately trying to create a character from the script’s disdain) and angrily dismissed by his teen daughter Jane (a very good Thora Birch). Finally fed up, Lester rebels by quitting his job, lusting after his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari), and smoking weed with Ricky (Wes Bentley), the high-schooler whose family has moved in next door.
The odds are stacked right from the start. The hate and disgust among the Burnham family is so thick that it’s clear the movie isn’t even interested in anything other than dragging us all to a miserable end. Oh, it gets distracted along the way—mostly by lecherous fantasy sequences in which Lester imagines himself with Angela (Suvari is actually quite funny in the few other scenes she gets)—but make no mistake: American Beauty is headed for an awkwardly prescribed (and contrived) “tragic” ending, one that’s foretold by Lester’s opening voiceover.
To be fair, Ball’s script has some witty moments. “I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility,” Lester tells the fast-food manager he hopes will hire him, in an amusing attempt to relive his high-school days. And Bening’s goofy cries of ecstasy when she acts out by embarking on an affair with a fellow realtor (Peter Gallagher) will always elicit a guffaw. (It’s the rare moment Carolyn resembles a human.) As for Mendes, who came from a theater background, he shows a natural eye for composing a frame that traps these characters within their suburban confines. The recurring motif of red rose petals, meant to symbolize Angela’s allure, is also a nice visual touch, though I wish Mendes had trusted them more and let them stand in for the girl entirely during the fantasy sequences.
Ultimately, American Beauty is undone by hypocrisy. The movie wants to admire Lester’s transgressive behavior (he’s never really punished for it the way Carolyn is), yet when the climactic seduction scene between Lester and Angela arrives, he’s given a moral escape hatch. After a fair amount of sexual activity (all filmed from Lester’s predatory point of view), Angela announces that she’s a virgin, prompting Lester to chivalrously back off. The brief, following scene of him making her a snack in the kitchen, where she wraps a blanket around herself like a child, may be the most disturbing one in the movie.
It’s the film’s title, however, that points to the bigger hypocrisy. Throughout the movie, Bentley’s Ricky has been surreptitiously filming with a video camera, capturing everything from his neighbors fighting to a dead bird on the ground. When Jane asks him what he’s looking for, he launches into a speech about finding beauty in the most mundane, even troubling, aspects of the world. He then proceeds to show her the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen: a 15-minute video of a plastic bag blowing about in the wind.
That image—and Ricky’s description of it—is lovely, to be sure. And it’s also at odds with nearly everything else we see in American Beauty. The idea of glory being found in the gutter is a profound one, but this movie is almost entirely interested in the gutter, as its climactic burst of violence goes on to prove. Lester’s voiceover returns in an epilogue that tries to backtrack away from the awfulness, but by this point his words only ring false. This is a bitter film that flirts with transcendence, maybe even gestures toward it. But it can’t find it in its heart to believe.