The Good: Characters, Plot, Acting, Direction, Soundtrack, SCRIPT!
The Bad: None.
The Basics: American Beauty is a perfect film wherein one man's mid-life crisis spirals out of control. Visually impressive and populated by intriguing characters, perfectly acted, what more could you want from a film?
There was a long period before and after American Beauty won the Best Picture Oscar that I lived with disappointment. Until The Return Of The King won, there was a stretch of winners following American Beauty that both left me disappointed and poorer (yea, betting on the Oscars!). As well, following the disgrace of Gladiator winning and my annoyance that Shakespeare In Love (a fine film in its own right, but not at all superior to Magnolia or The Red Violin) won over my two favored films of that year, I felt quite pleased that when American Beauty won the best picture Oscar, I felt it deserved it. How rare is that?
American Beauty is the story of Lester Burnham, American Loser. He's a middle age man having pretty much the typical mid-life crisis. He and his real estate agent wife, Carolyn, have not made love in a long time and it's clear the love is long gone from their relationship. It's quite sad, truly. Lester is also feeling quite alienated from his daughter, Jane. Jane, for her part, has become the target of intrigue of the next door neighbor, Ricky Fitts. Ricky lives with his oppressive (and repressed) Colonel father. Lester attempts to relate to Jane, but instead finds himself attracted to her friend, Angela. And right now, it probably sounds like I'm describing a soap opera.
It's not at all. Lester finds himself noticing Angela and as a result, he comes to understand just how much of himself he's lost. So, he extorts his boss at work for a generous severance package and starts work at a fast food restaurant so he can have fun with his life without real responsibility. Carolyn, reacting to Lester's sudden revival, takes a different turn. She begins an extramarital affair and target practice. Of all of them, Jane is probably the most pure, articulating her instantaneous desires, but understanding most of them well enough to know they are not necessarily healthy actions.
There are few films that so vividly capture the importance and vitality of individual characters and, in truth, the film is about the way one life may cause so many others to spiral out of control. Lester's mid life crisis has drastic consequences on Carolyn, Jane, and Ricky. The end is somewhat shocking and yet, understandable.
All of the characters have so much backstory they are bringing to the film and it comes out so well, with a genuine sense that each of the characters is vital and real. It's impressive. The thing is, none of them are particularly nice. And that's the magic of the film: it's an escape for us from the responsibilities of reality. Alan Ball writes a series of characters all of whom have character traits that most of us would find reprehensible in people in our own family and yet, here they appear perfectly accessible and almost normal. Lester is a loser and an extortionist, Jane expresses homicidal disrespect for her father, Carolyn is an adultress, Ricky is a drug dealer and Angela is a habitual liar.
But they work.
The story is woven together perfectly and directed wonderfully with a strong eye for color, movement and stylistic grace. Alan Ball's characters have depth, the story is narrated well with excellent pacing. I'm actually surprised the film is as long as it is; it feels much shorter than 121 minutes.
And the acting. Kevin Spacey deserved his Oscar for best actor, hands down. His portrayal of Lester Burnham is perfect. He plays Lester with a wonderful transformation of slouching and mumbling to upright and eyes perfectly visible. Lester's story is the understanding of appreciating that which is around us. Annette Bening is wonderfully over the top Carolyn. Thora Birch is mature and simplistically beautiful as Jane and Wes Bently was perfectly cast as Ricky. He has a face that makes a first impression as intense and creepy and yet he is able to soften it at critical moment. He's quite wonderful.
The film is a wonderful exploration of a man with a midlife crisis who wakes up to the idea that all around him there is a wonderful amount of beauty. And life. And we, watching it, we can appreciate that. We're not Lester.
As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, by clicking here!
For other works featuring Allison Janney, please check out my reviews of:
Lost – Season 6
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
The West Wing
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2009, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.