As directorial debuts go, American Beauty (1998) is just about as close to perfection as it comes. Since his first feature blazed though the 2000 Academy Awards – picking up eight nominations and five awards – British director Sam Mendes has failed to reach the same levels of critical success with offerings such as Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), whilst American Beauty has gone on to be one of the most revered and influential films of the last few decades.
Mendes weaves compelling drama with black comedy as he slowly unpicks the American dream, transforming the landscape from middle-class utopia into a trial of unfulfilled desires and corrupted family values. On the face of it the film would appear to be yet another tale of boredom in the suburbs but a closer look reveals a touching pursuit for happiness amidst mind-numbing routine and convention. A delicate story about youth and liberation, the Blu-ray release of American Beauty is the perfect opportunity to revisit a haunting satire on suburban America.
The film chronicles a year in the life of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), narrated by him from beyond the grave, as he comes to the realisation that he has sleepwalked his way into middle-age. Reinvigorated by the attention of his daughter’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), his infatuation with her inspires him to leave his job, buy the car he’s always wanted and befriend his neighbour’s marijuana-dealing son. As Lester begins to emancipate himself his wife begins her own midlife crisis and has an affair with a fellow real estate mogul while their daughter begins seeing Lester’s dealer, Ricky (Wes Bentley).
It is a credit to Spacey that his fantastically dry performance as Lester carries the film and manages to mask the few flaws that there are. Without him much of the contrived dialogue and frequent use of symbolism may have seemed overdone but his presence and low-key delivery makes it all the more ironic, strengthening the film. It’s no coincidence that the sequences without him are nowhere near as strong but he is well complimented by Annette Bening who manages to be both irritating beyond belief and cut a tragic and lonely figure.
Part of the American Beauty’s brilliance is that it can be very difficult to identify with either Spacey or Bening’s characters. Their actions are neither endorsed or sneered upon and Lester is certainly a flawed hero. Again this is to its advantage as the detachment felt towards the cast allows some of the alienation in their lives to seep into the audience. Such sterile surroundings retain the suspicion that somewhere, among the perfect roses and pristine white fences, there is a bomb waiting to go off. The difference between American Beauty and the countless other films about miserable suburban families with a happy facades is that the film is more about returning to a youthful point in life when everything still seemed possible. Ultimately Lester’s daughter, Jane, is the true hero having already realised, unlike her parents, that the American dream is little more than a fantasy.
American Beauty can be watched in a number of ways; as a black comedy, a satire on suburban culture or even as a moral tale about youth and growing up. There isn’t a ‘wrong’ way to view it but it deserves to be seen more than once to be appreciated from all angles. If you’re going to re-watch a film then go no further than American Beauty but if you’re seeing it for the first time then you’re in for a treat.