122 Min | Drama | September 1999
IMDB Rating: 8.5
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
American Beauty Review: “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. 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”.
“American Beauty” 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 “American Beauty” 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.