You don’t get to tell me what to do ever again- Lestor Burnham
If someone were to ask me what the most bizarre Oscar Best Picture Winner I had seen was, I would not hesitate before telling them it was American Beauty. In fact, if someone asked me what the most bizarre film I had ever seen was I would hesitate but American Beauty would be one of my top answers. A film that explores sexuality, insecurity, family, adultery, beauty and much more, American Beauty is a unique film that I still am having trouble wrapping my head around.
The story looks at two families, what I call the main character family, the Burnhams, and the supporting character family, the Fitts. Lestor Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is having his midlife crisis. Lestor lives with his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), who is materialistic and does not respect him and his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) who has very low self esteem. Becoming infatuated with Jane’s cheer-leading friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), Lester begins to have sexual fantasies about her, each fantasy having the common theme of rose petals. Lester quits his job, blackmailing his boss for sixty thousand dollars, buys his dream car, starts smoking pot and gets a job at a fast food restaurant. Meanwhile Carolyn begins an affair with business rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and Jane starts up a relationship with new neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bently).
After having to leave military school to spent time in a mental hospital, Ricky moved next to the Burnhams with his introverted mother (Allison Janney) and his father, Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper). Living under the strict watch of his father, Ricky attends high school and somehow manages to sell pot, one of his clients being Lester Burnham. In too much mental turmoil to act properly, we find that Frank does love his son but is unable to express it. Ricky is obsessed with the world, filming everything possible with a hand held camcorder. Ricky finds beauty in the oddest places like a dead animal or a bag dancing in the wind.
Originally written by Alan Ball as a play and then adapted to the big screen, American Beauty marks the debut of Sam Mendes’ film directing career. The two made a great duo, easily making the directing and the writing play off one another and they make an even better trio with cinematographer Conrad Hall. Ball’s script was filled with onscreen tension and turbulence, containing with conflicting characters and ideas. Mendes complimented the script by creating tension using slow pans and zooms. While the directing and the script went hand in hand to create tension, Hall uses simple, peaceful shot compositions that do not seem to quite fit with the theme of the film. This contrast gives the audience an uneasy feeling, as if the film, much like all of its characters, is spinning out of control.
Up against a number of fantastic films, American Beauty beat the Cider House Rules, the Insider, the Green Mile and the Sixth Sense for Best Picture. While at first I was convinced I did not like American Beauty, throughout the course of writing this review I realized how fantastic a film it actually is. The film was not made to necessarily be easy to watch but some true cinematic skill went into making it. Sam Mendes won Best Director for his work and Kevin Spacey took home the Oscar for Best Actor. Conrad Hall won for Best Cinematography and to round out trio I mentioned before, Alan Ball won for Best Original Screenplay. This film certainly isn’t for everybody and it is not a happy film but the skill that went into creating it makes this an B+ film. If you want a film that will thinking and analyzing for days, give this one a shot.