Spacey and Annette Bening
Lester and Caroline Burnham
: Sam Mendes
Courtesy of Dreamworks SKG
NEW YORK, 19 November 1999 - American
Beauty may seem like one more flick goofing on the suburbs. And it
does include plenty of guffaws at the suburban family's expense: it
exposes the drunkenness, the furtive masturbation, the passion for
lagoon pools and striped sofas. It snickers at suburban worship of
youth, too - like any television on a Tuesday night, Beauty's
camera sneaks into the schoolyard like a pervert, pathetically drooling
over dewy skin and inane conversation. But along with these snorts, American
Beauty records what's precious in the suburbs. It's a movie that
describes - in terms both tender and resentful --the beauty of
The film opens with a camcorder vision of Janie
Burnham (Thora Birch) lambasting her drippy father Lester (Kevin
Spacey). "How could he not be damaging me?" she asks her
interviewer-cum-boyfriend, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). "I mean, I
too need structure. A little fucking discipline." Janie's soft,
child's face and soft, woman's body pose other questions, too - and as
if in response, the film's story begins.
The camera tracks into
a protected, tree-lined street while Lester explains himself from beyond
the grave. He pokes fun at his dumb life: his martinet wife Caroline
(Annette Bening), his scornful teen Janie, and their dandy neighbors Jim
and Jim. Everyone is bright, aerobically-enhanced: when one Jim asks
Caroline how she gets those red, red roses to look so healthy, she beams
back: "eggshells and Miracle Grow!" Lester's having trouble at
the office, though. A thirty-ish VP rides Lester's ass like a Big Wheel,
and Lester could lose everything. Caroline, meanwhile, has split herself
in two trying to hock hovels as fast as Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher),
the "Rolls-Royce of local real estate."
glum. In an effort to cheer her, Lester and Caroline squish into the
highschool gym to watch Janie cheerlead in a bowler hat and bitty skirt,
shaking her sullen money-maker to the tune of "On Broadway."
But for Lester the tune changes. Suddenly he's drawn into the
concentrated gaze of Angela, head cheerleader, whose bowler tips
wantonly for Lester alone. In his tingling fantasies, she arches her
neck, opening her acrylllic zip-top to loose the rose petals that
Caroline had so tightly restrained. The lawless beauty of the petals
won't let Lester be. He embarrasses himself and his daughter by shifting
into teen mode, desperately running to regain some of the abandoned
sexiness of his youth. Shamed, Janie scurries into the frame of Ricky's
camcorder where the two debate the value of discipline for children.
Meanwhile, Ricky's father (Chris Cooper) rules his boy like a Führer,
forcing Ricky to split himself in two. Every relationship intensifies to
an unbearable heat, until the final moments reassert Lester's tempered
American Beauty is, overtly, a film
that considers how much discipline is required to produce the glory of
roses, of children, of film. Should families reign in all divergent
behavior, pushing good kids like Ricky to the point of murder? Which
rose is more gorgeous, the silky-damp petals that fall through Lester's
fantasies, or the firmly-budded clusters that Caroline stocks? Can one
record the "benevolent force behind life" with a video-cam?
How much discipline do these delicate projects require?
director Sam Mendes (The Blue Room), what's required to create
beauty seems to be, metaphorically, a version of "eggshells and
In this film, roses and children thrive on
broken shells and busted boundaries, but they also need a benevolent
order behind things - a miracle they can grow in. Children need to burst
from the tightest of their families' protective shells, but they also
need "a little fucking discipline" - some base of security
from which they can ply their minor crimes. And maybe filmmaking - like
Ricky's mini-vids or American Beauty itself - similarly requires
transgression within a frame.
Instead of mocking suburban
enclaves, the film acts as apologist for the principle of containment.
Alan Ball has provided dialogue and counterpoint that thread through
these issues simply and surely. Director Mendes has found visual symbols
that simplify his difficult questions.
The performers each
find unanticipated depths in suburban icons: Spacey's Lester is
surprisingly warm and thoughtful beneath his midlife crisis; Annette
Bening finds the frightened girl inside Caroline's bitchy squalling; and
Birch and Bentley are particularly intriguing as teens nurturing their
inner adults. In a truly standout performance in a minor role, Allison
Janney sketches Ricky's mother, a wife ossified by her husband's strict
Throughout, the film shows us more than we expected,
and shows us - more importantly - how to find more beauty than we expect
outside the theater. By seeing life inside a frame, Mendez suggests, we
are better able to recognize what's precious.
Beauty, though it seems another hokey cut-up of suburban types,
invites us to look at life within its frame; it invites us to see the
miracle of beauty, and the fragile walls that let it grow.