"American Beauty" (1999)
This film is absolutely AMAZING.
Directed by Sam Mendes, Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) are on the outside, a perfect husband and wife, in a perfect house, in a perfect neighbourhood. But inside, Lester is undergoing a midlife crisis, slipping deeper into a hopeless depression. He soon develops an infatuation with one of his daughter, Jane’s (Thora Birch) friends, Angela (Mena Suvari). Meanwhile, Jane develops a friendship with a boy next door named Ricky (Wes Betley), who lives with an abusive father (Chris Cooper) and videos her through his window.
I love this film so much!! I really do. It is without a doubt one of the best you will see!
The narration in the opening scene by Kevin Spacey sets the atmosphere perfectly. I’m a fan of narration like this in movies anyway but whatever it was about this I liked a lot. Maybe it’s the fact he says “In less than a year, I’ll be dead” – That’s bound to peak anyone’s interest! You get a feel of how mundane this character’s life is from the word go. I like the aerial shot of the whole neighbourhood. I think it almost mirrors the character’s feelings of insignificance. You know, all the houses are the same, there’s so many of them and he is just one man in the middle of it all, nothing special. Then it immediately jumps to an aerial shot of this languid looking man sprawled across his bed as the alarm clock rings in an uncommonly tidy room. Your interest is heightened and despite not knowing much about him yet, your heart immediately goes out to him.
Sam Mendes = brilliant director.
I love the manner in which we’re introduced to Lester’s wife and the neighbours. Just the way Kevin Spacey delivers his lines. I don’t know if I should, but I find it kind of comical. I also find Carolyn's sarcasm funny. There’s a lively feel to the script even though the character is feeling nearly dead inside. The writing in this film is incredible. I love the dialogue throughout the film.
However it does get the tiniest bit creepy kind of fast once it gets to the cheerleading scene and Lester begins fantasising over his daughter’s friend, Angela… And his wife is a horrible person! Once they were about to leave the school, finished for the night, and speaking to their daughter, she says to her “I was watching you very closely and you didn’t screw up once!” – What kind of mother says that to their daughter? No wonder the characters are feeling so oppressed living with remarks like that!! I can’t make up my mind whether the way Lester was talking to Angela in that scene was just weird or kind of comical.
The scene that follows is also slightly creepy. But one that has become one of the most iconic moments in film. We see Angela lying naked in a bed of rose petals…courtesy of Lester’s fantasies… The sequence manages to capture innocence and lust in a series of shots that could have been ridiculous but is instead artistically successful. While it is skilfully shot and not pornographic, it is still creepy when you consider the fact that Angela is only fifteen years old. However Sam Mendes has shot it in such a way that it never becomes paedophilic, despite the apparent perverted nature of the day dreams. Rose petals seem to be a common image throughout the film. Roses appear in quite a number of scenes from his fantasies, Caroline’s gardening in the beginning, to just in a vase in the background. Even the colour red actually appears quite a lot. The colour signifies lust, desire and danger which are basically the components that make up the story. I love the detail.
Then in the middle of all of this, we are also slowly being introduced to this creepy-stalker-camera-guy. (I don’t know what else you’d call him!) named Ricky. I like the way his aspect of the plot is built up. It’s done well I feel. You’re constantly kept guessing about what exactly he’s doing. I also love the way we are shown both house’s lives and then they become slowly interconnected. There’s a scene with him and Lester where they get high at the back of a building. Lester is attending a work party thing with his wife and is not enjoying himself to say the least. I laughed perhaps a little too much during that moment. But it was also the first time in the film where we saw Lester genuinely happy. You know, it was nice for him!
His character is kind of pathetic…at least in the first portion of the film. Because like there’s a scene a little later when he’s listening through the door to Jane and Angela’s conversation. Angela is remarking about Lester "If he worked out a little he'd be kind of hot" and she goes on about it trying to get a reaction out of Jane but he ran off down to the garage to find his old weights which it’s obvious he hasn’t used in years. I always feel embarrassed for him in that moment. But the way he runs across the corridor is hysterical! Kevin Spacey is a phenomenal actor.
What strikes me most about this film was how the creepiest guy, Ricky, of the whole lot of the characters, was probably the most profound. This film is very much focusing on the idea of how deceptive appearances or first impressions can be. He sees beauty where others don’t and that’s the whole point of the film and the title. There’s a scene where he has brought Jane home to his house after school and he asks her if she’d like to see the most beautiful thing he’s ever filmed. It turns out to be a bag blowing about in a breeze amongst some leaves. I love this moment. Just the gentleness of the music and the fact it was something so simple that everyone else takes for granted but he saw a beauty in it. I also loved it because I was so sure it was going to be a really clichéd moment of showing her a film he took of her, and I was just going to be like ‘for god’s sake’. But no. It probably doesn’t sound like much but if you watch it he explains why he filmed it: “That’s the day I realised there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.” I just love this scene. It’s probably one of my favourite moments in the film.
This is followed by the next best scene in the film! Jane arrives home and her parents have been in silence at the table until she sits down. They begin a very honeyed argument about the fact Lester quit his job. I love their dialogue in this scene. But what’s so brilliant is Lester finally stands up for himself properly once and for all. His daughter is about to go to her room, not wanting to be in the middle of their bickering, but he shouts “SIT DOWN!” and both women turn agog. He stands and makes a point of getting the plate of asparagus which he’d been asking for in between the bickering and being ignored, before sitting down again and declaring that he’s sick and tired of being treated like he doesn’t exist. He begins an overdue speech on the matter but is interrupted by his wife. He throws the plate of asparagus at the wall (not like angrily or anything) and tells her not to interrupt him again “honey”. Both women are completely in shock as he just sits down at the table again with a quiet and proud smile. I always feel so happy for him in this moment. I love this scene!! Apparently the throwing of the plate was improvised by Kevin Spacey and Thora Birch and Annette Bening didn’t know this was coming so their reactions are supposed to be genuine! This just makes this scene even more awesome!
Actually, as we're on the subject of best scenes in this film, there is also the one where Lester quits his job. That scene is epic. I mean...that is how it's done. It has to be mentioned! Also the scene when he is applying for his next job at the fast food restaurant, Smileys - Just brilliant. There are so many more too but if I started talking about them now I'd ruin the film for those who haven't seen it!!
As the film goes on you do begin to feel sorry for Carolyn too. She’s unhappy just as much as Lester is but expresses or deals with it differently. She describes herself as a victim and even though she’s partially the reason for the conflict in their household, she’s not wrong. All the characters are victims in their own way. This film actually really reminds me of “Revolutionary Road” which was also directed by Sam Mendes. They focus on much the same themes.
The directing and the editing is just absolutely amazing. Particularly in the scenes towards the end. It’s just incredible. I was screaming at the screen in horror the first time I watched it because I thought I knew what was going to happen but then while I was partially right there was still another shock revealed and I was just blown away by how the climax was constructed. It’s seriously incredible. You just have to watch it!! And whatever you do, don’t go onto YouTube before watching it!!!!
I like the music in the film too. Thomas Newman was the composer. He also composed the score for “Revolutionary Road”! There’s this one piece which plays at the beginning titled “Dead Already” and I just think it’s so perfect. It gives the film a lighter tone, fitting well with Lester’s festering cynicism and sarcastic undertone. The film won 5 Oscars including Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. It also won 6 Baftas.
The only thing I have to say about an otherwise perfect film is the way it is promoted. I feel like the trailer and the stills make it look more like it’s going to be about a paedophile or some relation of porn, as opposed to an epic and well-constructed drama. Had it not been because of this initial impression, I probably would have watched it a lot sooner than I did. It put me off. But there you go! This is exactly the point being made throughout the film! One can’t simply judge something based on first impressions. One has to “look closer. Look closer.”!
I could actually go on waffling about every single scene in this film, because there is a distinct brilliance to each one, but I’d only spoil the whole thing for those who haven’t seen it yet. So I’m going to stop here. I feel like this film teaches you that all you want in life can happen if you put your mind to it and take control of your own life as opposed to allowing others to control it. Do what you want to do and not what others tell you, you should do. It also teaches you to appreciate what you have before it’s too late. And to appreciate life and the world around you.
There are some twists. There are more turns. Between the directing, editing, writing, cinematography and acting, this film is seriously one of the best you will see.