After his death sometime in his forty-third year, suburbanite Lester Burnham tells of the last few weeks of his life, during which he had no idea of his imminent passing. He is a husband to real estate agent Carolyn Burnham and father to high school student Janie Burnham. Although Lester and Carolyn once loved each other, they now merely tolerate each other. Typical wallflower Janie too hates both her parents, the three who suffer individually in silence in their home life. Janie tries to steer clear of both her parents. Carolyn, relatively new to the real estate business, wants to create the persona of success to further her career, she aspiring to the professional life of Buddy Kane, the king of the real estate business in their neighborhood. Lester merely walks mindlessly through life, including at his job in advertising. His company is downsizing, and he, like all the other employees, has to justify his position to the newly hired efficiency expert to keep his job. Things change ... Written by
Conrad L. Hall was not the first choice for director of photography; Sam Mendes believed he was "too old and too experienced" to want the job, and he had been told that Hall was difficult to work with. Instead, Mendes asked Frederick Elmes, who turned the job down because he did not like the script. Hall was recommended to Mendes by Tom Cruise, because of Hall's work on Without Limits (1998), which Cruise had executive produced. Mendes was directing Cruise's then-wife Nicole Kidman in the play The Blue Room during pre-production on the film, had already storyboarded the whole film. See more »
When Jane and Angela are outside talking to Ricky at school, Angela's cigarette keeps growing and shrinking throughout the conversation. See more »
I need a father who's a role model, not some horny geek-boy who's gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school. What a lame-o. Someone really should just put him out of his misery.
Want me to kill him for you?
Yeah. Would you?
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thanks to all at the Donmar Warehouse in London and Dr. Bill and Alice See more »
"American Beauty" is tour de force cinema. Sam Mendes' brilliant debut feature depicts a web of characters who yearn for their own 'American Dream' - yet, in the end, only one character truly attains it.
Having seen "Happiness" only recently, I could not help but draw comparisons: both films centre around a microcosm of society in which the people, in their own unique way, all strive to be successful or simply 'happy'. But here the similarities end: the characters in "Happiness" undergo a self-realisation process through which they become increasingly aware of their meaningless existence, and go on to wallow in their own depravity. "Happiness" shows no signs of redemption; whereas in "American Beauty" the audience is offered a sense of hope, of salvation, though the characters must endure a similar fate, or more accurately, they must endure the way of life in which they are trapped.
The pivotal character upon which this theme centres, is the father Lester, played impeccably by Kevin Spacey. He is presented to us as a bit of a loser who plays the subjugated figure in the home and at work. He appears resigned to an unhappy life in which he is treated badly by his wife and daughter and his boss at work. Seemingly beyond redemption, Lester transforms from being a loser.
Mendes portrays this transformation admirably well: he shows Lester on his 'path to enlightenment' pushed up against a grim background of suburbanite existence. These early scenes are well balanced, forming a steady rhythm of TV commercial-like vignettes which prove very comical, if at times unsettling. As Lester reflects in the film: "My life is like a commercial". And how this rings true: like in "Happiness", all the characters hide underneath this veneer of normality and respectability, yet they are all revealed to be nothing but the opposite: depressed, depraved and desperate.
Lester's wife, played by Annette Benning, is the most success-driven character in the story which renders her the most hopeless in the film's tone of moral conviction. "In order to be successful in life one must project the appearance of success" is the maxim she adopts from the 'king' of real estate, Buddy King. It is a phrase which resonates throughout the film: for Benning's pawn, life is all about keeping-up appearances. This is where Lester differs from her: his emancipation is enabled by him discarding the constraints of 'normal life' and following what his heart desires.
Lester is the catalyst in this narrative in which the ancillary characters either follow suit (as does his daughter and Ricky) or pay the price (as does his wife and the Colonel). The irony inherent in this film, and it grows with resonance as the film draws to a conclusion, is that the only character who truly becomes free must sacrifice everything in order to achieve it. Yet it is through his sacrifice that he is able to afford the surviving characters a glimpse of hope in life.
This film left me gasping for air: its hyper-realism conveys, at the same time, a portrait of the suburban comedy, a jolting-shock of realisation, and a cathartic sense of hope. Mendes depicts a certain people who, to varying degrees, all strive for a certain 'American Dream', yet so few actually attain it. Though whilst one may have difficulty with tagging this film with the 'feel good' label, the beauty of "American Beauty" is that it sits half-way between a desperate cry for help and a reassuring sense of happiness and fulfilment and that is cinema at its best.
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