1999’s American Beauty is not a very deep or interesting film. Despite its ruminations on the meaning of life and the wasted living inherent in bourgeois routine, the film doesn’t have a lot to offer beyond its impossibly smug surface predilections.
Actually, I take that back. The film does have a lot to offer, just not any combination that galvanizes into a truly memorable cinematic experience. Conrad Hall’s photography is first-rate, and director Sam Mendes displays an enormous amount of vision in his directorial debut. Kevin Spacey is also excellent as Lester Burnham, a man entranced by boredom until he’s shaken out of it by a shot in the arm of sex, drugs and freedom.
Too bad all of these elements are betrayed by a rotten core, just like the one the film posits is at the heart of suburbia — Alan Ball’s self-satisfied script that would occasionally be truly painful to endure if it wasn’t being performed by such capable actors. In Ball’s world, a white picket fence exists as the bars that keep the soul imprisoned, and frankly, it gets a bit ridiculous. I’m not saying suburbia can’t be soul crushing, but the script seemingly has nowhere to go beyond that premise.
Instead, we get a film that is utterly sympathetic to Lester, who has no redeeming qualities either before or after his transformation. Before, he’s a corporate whore incapable of displaying emotion. After, he’s pretty much a druggie perv. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch Spacey play that up, but the film’s simultaneous vilification of his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), for exhibiting very similar behavior smacks of a strange double standard.
Outside the confines of the Burnham family (Thora Birch is solid as the misfit daughter Jane, by the way), the characterizations become more absurd and less insightful — Mena Suvari as a sex-obsessed high schooler, Chris Cooper as a gay-hating military vet, Wes Bentley as the all-seeing conscience of the neighborhood. They exist as “dark secrets of the suburbs,” not actual people.
American Beauty just doesn’t hold up under any real scrutiny. It’s got flashes of really smart filmmaking (which is sort of emblematic of Mendes’s career since), but it’s mostly empty. The stranglehold it once held on pop culture has certainly begun to fade, and chances are, the film won’t have left much of a visible impression at all 30 years from now.