This stunning production conveys artistic imagery that will linger in your mind for days. This beauty won a well deserved 'Best Picture' award at the Oscars, which should be reason enough to give it a go, if you haven't already. The main appeal of this film is the aesthetics, which may be why it has been criticised and misunderstood by so many people.
An ordinary family man, Lester (Kevin Spacey) is unsatisfied and miserable. He begins to tell us that he will be dead in less than a year, meaning the film is a replay of the events leading up to his death. He is married to Carolyn, who is a materialistic character. Together they share a 16-year-old daughter named Jane (Thora Birch). She is insecure and has many self-esteem issues, which seems fitting due to the toxic environment that she is growing up in. The married couple seem exhausted and unhappy as a result of their contrasting desires and personalities. Lester's life takes an unexpected turn when he is introduced to Jane's best friend, Angela (Mena Suveri). He becomes infatuated and begins to have many sexual fantasies about her. While this is happening, Carolyn begins an affair and Jane starts dating Ricky (Wes Bentley), who has just moved in next door. The story turns dark when one night, Jane and Ricky discuss killing Lester. A lot of chaos is caused as Ricky attempts to get close to Lester. His homophobic father misunderstands this, thinking his son is gay. The intertwining events paint the impression of all the characters living completely separate lives. Expect lots of secrets, lies and deception. Will Lester act upon his lust for the seductive and desirable Angela? Will Ricky succeed in his plan?
This story unfolds with a lot of twists and unexpected occurrences. I developed a mixture of emotions whilst watching; from feeling sympathetic to confused to slightly disturbed. Some viewers may even feel disconnected with the characters, as they all seem to have a cold disposition. As they suffer in silence, we struggle to discover what they're really thinking. Despite this, it still surprises me how so many people have disliked this motion picture in the past. The plot has been criticised for being disorientating but this shouldn't be the main focus of the film. It is an artistic production laced with metaphors and hidden symbols. I found that the acting was honest and raw. Spacey isn't trying too hard to get us to understand Lester's world, he simply interprets the circumstances that he is put into. The storyline may seem a bit complex at first but the intention of this film is to look beyond that and examine the clues, which should help in explaining the scenarios that are unravelling before us.
The camera work is immaculate in this film. The film opens with a shot from above, of the town that the characters live in, indicating how small and unimportant its inhabitants are, despite their statuses and achievements. As Lester's teenage lust grows, he begins to feel more powerful, hence the low camera angles. We are looking up at him as his love for Jane has made him feel on top of the world. There are many moments of chaos, but one particular one stood out to me. When Ricky's dad walks in on him filming Jane, the camera goes blurry and loses focus. Could this be a foreshadowing of the rollercoaster of events that are about to spin out of control? Lester's fantasies are usually filmed in a lowlight, as if he is sitting at a romantic candlelit dinner. At one point, we see Jane having a bath of roses and the room is filled with steam. Hot smoke depicts Lester's growing romance that could potentially turn dangerous. If his desires get too hot, his life could eventually blow over and explode, destroying everything that he has built for himself. The cinematography is very intelligent in this way and always relevant to what is happening or is to come.
Mendes explores many topics in his film including the American Dream. This ordinary American family have it all; a lovely home, opportunities, well paying careers, social success. Yet they are still unhappy. Their success has blinded them from loving each other and each of them fall victim to loneliness. In one of the scenes, we see a glint of hope when Lester and Carolyn share an intimate moment in their living room. As Lester seductively kisses her, Carolyn quickly stop him as she realises he might spill his beer onto her beloved upholstered couch. We learn that their materialistic lifestyle has destroyed them as money and possessions is the only thing that Carolyn seems to care about; their bank accounts however cannot fix their marriage or sex life. The American Dream is subduing the beauty in America, hence the title. The many aesthetics are a reminder of all the beauty that surrounds the characters, yet all they see is green dollar bills.
Red roses are seen almost in every scene. They give us an insight into Lester's fantasies with Angela. He paints her as a sexual omen who is constantly trying to tempt him in his mind. The roses illustrate the illusion of beauty and how they are the easiest choice when you think about getting your loved one something beautiful. Roses are the most common flower which may be a parallel with the real Angela. Maybe her confidence is also a fantasy? Lester's reckless feelings build up a sense of anticipation and made me fear the worst for the future of his family. We learn that he is not a man of sensible choices so neither his money or his infatuation with Angela will guarantee him the happiness that he seeks. Mendes needs to be praised for being experimental, as he also touches upon homosexuality, which was still considered taboo back in 1999. At times, the many metaphors within the film slightly swerve it away from the plot, however it still deserves credit for being manic and intriguing.
So is American Beauty a bit of a mess and is there a reason for the constant pretty imagery in every scene? Maybe to hide the poorly executed script? In the past, it has been described as a mockery, disorganised, disturbing; the list goes on. I personally believe that it is the Marmite equivalent of the film industry, you either love it or hate it. It is a classic and always will be. It is hard for me to pinpoint where this film could have gone wrong for some viewers. It has a gripping storyline and gorgeous shots. It has also been criticised for its 'blandness' which I imagine was Mendes' intention. It is a metaphorical and artistic representation of how the American Dream can turn sour. The morbid mood and dry dialogue is a smart choice in drawing upon the sensation of getting stuck in a loop. So if you haven't already, go and immerse yourself in this beauty, especially if you're an art buff and want something dreamy to watch.
American Beauty (1999)
Genre: Drama, Romance, Comedy
Age Rating: 18
Director: Sam Mendes
Duration: 122 minutes