Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) looks up one day from his cubicle and wonders just when he became a 40-something drone. He has the things you’re supposed to want: the beautiful house, beautiful wife, even the large automobile. What he can’t fathom is: How did he get here?
In their scathing portrayal of middle-class anxiety, screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes create an average Joe determined to unearth the carefully buried truths of his life. Married long enough to realize that proximity doesn’t equal intimacy, Burnham quietly despises his real estate agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), who lives by the credo that if you create the proper appearance, success and happiness will inevitably follow. This is nothing compared to the open hostility their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), expresses towards him, especially when Burnham develops a fantasy-fueled crush on her cheerleader friend, Angela (Mena Suvari).
A white-collar wage slave unhappily toiling at a trade magazine, Burnham is asked to evaluate his worth as an employee in a thinly veiled prelude to downsizing. This is the last straw in his sad-sack existence. Tired of feeling forgettable, neutered and like an insignificant cog in the grand mechanism of American capitalism, Burnham decides it’s time for a radical upheaval. But no one lives in a vacuum, and his individual choices reverberate through the lives of the people around him in unexpected ways.
American Beauty brilliantly defines the new face of suburban malaise, particularly how rootlessness, hollow striving and misplaced expectations inextricably lead to violence. It serves as a sort of bookend to Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, showing how the sullen, ignored adolescents of 1973 function today as parents. Both films also contrast the struggles of adults aching for a taste of freedom with teenagers who view them as ineffectual hypocrites.
Lester Burnham may be the heart of the film, but Ricky Fitts (an eerily intense Wes Bentley) is its soul. Viewing his deceptively orderly world through the lens of a video camera, this teen voyeur records the mundane while hoping to catch a glimpse of the divine. He succeeds, as does the sublime American Beauty.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.