There is something special about American Beauty.
It finds itself, fifteen years after its release, comfortably superior, sitting amongst those select films we have knighted as ‘The Greats’.
Last week I sat down to watch the Robert Zemeckis film for what must have been more than the 20th time. I don’t traditionally watch movies until I am able to sing the score backwards, but I was fortunate enough to study American Beauty in my final year at school (if you wish I can perform the soundtrack later). Like listening to a favourite childhood song after years apart, I fell under American Beauty’s spell right away.
American Beauty’s plotline is almost simple.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) lives in a nice suburb with a nice family and a nice job. Yet he is, by every sense of the word, depressed. His superficial life, just like those around him, is enviable, but Lester finds himself crushed by an intangible lack of something great. There is a hollowness in the protagonist’s life. Lester feels a lack of purpose and fulfilment, but he cannot – and originally doesn’t even try – figure out why these feelings exist.
However, upon meeting and immediately becoming infatuated with his daughter’s attractive and popular high school friend Angela, a lost spark becomes reignited within Lester. Almost as if he is awakening from a coma, the protagonist finds motivation to start life afresh.
The narrative is voyeuristic, peering into Lester and his family’s life, as well as the lives of his neighbours, who also operate under the façade of upper-middle class perfection. As the story twists and develops, secrets become revealed, and it is clear that while the characters’ lives may seem complete and happy, they are actually anything but.
From an aesthetic level, America Beauty’s cast is fantastic.
For anyone wanting to understand the praise surrounding Kevin Spacey, skip House of Cards and watch American Beauty (although don’t actually skip House of Cards – it’s a great series). Deservingly rewarded with an Oscar for his performance, Spacey’s portrayal of Burnham is flawless. Burnham’s character transformation is as glaring as it is subtle. His switch from melancholic “loser” to a man of confident independence is not laboured and questionable, but somehow logical. Slightly altering his voice and body language throughout the narrative, Spacey achieves the nuance of change. His performance is, in itself, a true spectacle.
And Spacey’s brilliance does not operate in isolation. Annette Bening, acting as Lester’s wife, performs with a controlled insanity. Similarly, in her role as an abused housewife and neighbour of the Burnhams, Allison Janney evokes harrowing sympathy with nearly no lines of dialogue.
However, the true brilliance of American Beauty lies in its layered complexities.
Unlike your every day Hollywood blockbuster, there is something preciously Arthouse about the classic.
By all means, this film is different; it makes you think. Perhaps most amazingly, the film’s depth is achieved through its simplicity.
In what appears to be a dying art, meaning is extracted not from explosions and giant breasts (as entertaining as both of those are), but from jarring characterisations and the twisted plot line. The audience is forced into a confrontation with neighbour Colonel Fitts’ aggressive homophobia, just as it is with teenage Angela’s provocative sexuality and Lester’s wife Carolyn’s relentless pursuit of aesthetic perfection. Through these characters and the plotline in which they are intertwined, the idea of ‘normality’, particularly within the ostensibly normal upper-class society, becomes shattered.
You could almost label American Beauty as an Arthouse psychological-drama epic… or something a little more pithy. Somehow each time the credits crawl onto the screen at the film’s close, I find myself a little out of breath. The narrative is as grand as it is basic; its climax is as fantastic as it is drawn out. Viewers are lurched as violently as they are in any war movie. Set in an all-too-perfect middle class suburb, Robert Zemeckis’ drama plays out on the battlefield.
If you haven’t already watched American Beauty, please do.
I would even be happy to keep you company (if snacks are provided). If you have watched it, watch it again. The film’s genius will only keep on unravelling.
American Beauty was great 15 years ago, is great today and will continue to be great in the future. Its Beauty will live on.
My rating: 9.5/10.