Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is enjoying his mid life crisis. He gets himself fired, starts working out while smoking pot and listening to the rock and roll of his youth, buys a sports car and obsesses about his teenage daughters best friend, Angela. He is the most normal character in the film.
Lester's wife Carol (Annette Bening) has driven out the next door neighbors. The family that moves in is just as strange as the Burnhams. Ricky Fitts is obsessed with the idea of beauty, and videotapes everything, including Lester's daughter, Jane. At first Jane is creeped out by his attention, but eventually falls in love with him, ignoring the advice of Angela, who is convinced he's seriously deranged. Angela has also decided that Lester is pretty cute, and taunts Jane with threats of sleeping with him.
And we haven't even mentioned Carol's obsession with money and success, Colonel Frank Fitts who beats his son regularly, the real estate king, or…well, suffice it to say that every major character in the film, and most of the minor ones, are deeply and thoroughly screwed up.
American Beauty is a very funny film, but it's nervous laughter. The final dinner scene (which will become one of the most parodied scenes since Tom Cruse's sideways slide in Risky Business) is worth the price of admission; you'll be laughing and cringing at the same time.
This is a very adult film, full of adult themes and scenes. Not a lot of sexual scenes, but just some very disturbing stuff. Parents are cautioned to watch it themselves before watching it with their teenagers unless they enjoy being very uncomfortable.
Jane and Angela and Colonel Fitts are cliché characters we've seen a thousand times before. The movie also obsesses on the color red (much like The Sixth Sense) almost, but not quite, to the point of annoyance. But the rest of the characters are so believable and so perfectly performed it's easy to shrug off these minor flaws.
After watching American Beauty you may find yourself looking at mundane things differently. A dead bird or a plastic bag floating in the wind may hold your attention longer than it would have before. Great art is like that - it changes your perceptions of the world around you.
Gratuitous Nudity: AB misses many chances for GN. All we get is one shot of Thora Burch's lopsided rack and one shot of Mena Suvari's large nipples and bony frame. They should have at least given us glimpse of Annette Bening so we could see how she's held up over the years.
© 2001 Dave Hitt