There are six main characters and another half-dozen smaller parts in American Beauty. All of them are well written and well acted. Best of all, and most impressive for a mere movie, is that all the characters grow and change in search of the niche that suits them.
On the surface they seem exaggerated, quirky, and sometimes a little warped and sinister. But look closer and you’ll see they are all within the realm of credibility, and much more normal than they first appeared. Their stage is a generic American neighborhood.
Screenwriter Alan Ball has written for the stage and for sitcoms.
Did You Notice?
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) anchors the film. He says his wife is oblivious to him, and when he tries to talk to his teenaged daughter, he fails to communicate. He hates his dead-end job and wonders what happened to the days when the family was happy. Spacey is excellent at conveying the detached, sarcastic, bemused frustration at the turns his life is taking.
Two events quickly turn Lester’s life around. At a high school basketball halftime show, a cheerleader friend of his daughter makes eye contact with him, which sends him into a rose-petaled sexual fantasy where she is dancing just for him.
Another night, he goes with his wife to a fancy party for her real estate friends. A young waiter spots Lester getting drunk alone, and asks if he would like some pot. Why not, he figures, and the two go out back to smoke a joint. The boss finds the kid outside and orders him back to work, so the kid quits, just like that. Lester says “I think you just became my personal hero.”
Lester becomes enthralled with this adolescent life of pretty cheerleaders, smooth dope, and a to-hell-with-work attitude. He completely regresses, leaving his career, getting a part-time job flipping burgers, and buying the car he always wanted in high school. He even starts working out in hopes that he’ll impress the cheerleader, maybe to start a little something on the side with her.
Each of the other characters is affected by Lester and his change in lifestyle.
Lester’s wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is one of the less sympathetic characters in American Beauty, in part because Lester, the central figure, sees her as cold and selfish. She comes across as screechy and closed-minded, but her character is still solidly written and acted. Looking at the events from her point of view, her actions and emotions are completely justified. From her perspective, she is a normal person trapped in a family that has gone completely crazy.
The cheerleader is Angela (Mena Suvari), who looks very young, about 15. (Her age gives Lester’s earnest infatuation a creepy tone of lechery, that somehow fits in with the movie’s beauty-in-sickness themes.) Angela is technically friends with Lester’s daughter Jane (Thora Birch), although the two have very little in common. Angela likes to outdo her friends by talking about sex, and about which boy’s dick is bigger. Anything outside her Teen Beat world is passed off as “weird.” In modern parlance, Angela is a jock and Jane is a goth.
Jane claims to hate both of her parents. She thinks dad is an embarrassment and mom is out of touch. Two things in Jane’s life seem incongruous with a goth-type: first that she’s a cheerleader, and second that she’s saving her babysitting money for a boob job. But Jane is at that age where she’s just discovering who she really is and she starts to gravitate toward the quiet, moody boy next door (in spite of Angela’s speculations on how weird he probably is).
While the other characters are looking for something more, only Ricky (Wes Bentley) seems to be at peace with life. He is smart, observant, and a great judge of human nature, although he’s still hiding in his shell. Ricky is Jane’s boy next door and he’s also Lester’s young waiter. When he’s not selling pot or staying out of the way of his abusive father, he observes the world through his video camera, searching for Beauty. He finds it in death, in sadness, in waste.
Chris Cooper plays Ricky’s overbearing father, Colonel Fitts. He loves his son, and he thinks he keeps a tight leash on him. Obviously, dealing drugs isn’t a very tight leash, but as Ricky says, “never underestimate the power of denial.” Cooper is almost becoming typecast as an old-fashioned domineering figure. Still, he handles the character with appropriate seriousness and gravity.
The plot is not one of actions but of character development. Starting with Lester, the characters shun the lives they’ve become accustomed to. In exchange, they discover and accept the lives their true natures demand. Lester finds his inner adolescent. Carolyn accepts that her career is what’s most important. And Jane and Ricky bring each other out of their shells.
Over the soundtrack an amazingly simple musical theme plays. Scored by Thomas Newman, the music hints at discovery, awakening, and revelation, which ties in perfectly with the characters’ metamorphosis.
American Beauty is one of the best character studies in years. Movies that shun plot for characters seem susceptible to problems. Sometimes minor characters aren’t fleshed out, which ruins the richness of the movie. Sometimes a plot is tacked on that requires a character to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. Very rarely is it done flawlessly.
Although it comes close, American Beauty is not flawless, but it’s problems are almost never character-related. Sometimes the good-looking cinematography seems a little staged. A few plot point setups are a little too coincidental. But because the film succeeds where it tries to, these complaints are nothing. Come December, look for this movie to get honored with awards and high spots on top ten lists, including mine.