The film's style is a wonderful mix of drama and comedy. Its subject matter is serious, even philosophical, but there is plenty of sarcasm and dead-pan humor to lighten the load and give the viewer a richly entertaining experience. At bottom, American Beauty is a coming of age tale in two respects. Most obviously, it is the awkward daughter, Jane, who discovers love for the first time and is drawn into a relationship that helps define her. But also, both Lester (Spacey) and Caroline, his wife, (Benning) each find themselves moving along separate paths, Lester, particularly, changing his lifestyle and becoming, for the first time, who he truly is - at age 42.
The film plays with a tapestry of classic and contemporary philosophical questions. What is the meaning of life? How do we deal with the numbing consumerist mentality of suburban America? How are we imprisoned by modern life and, more importantly, how do we find redemption? What constitutes "beauty"? What does it mean to follow the direction prescribed by American culture versus discovering and following your own unique path?
Sexuality is a huge part of the film. The allure of youth and the allure of power as well as the allure of misfits genuinely connecting with someone are all explored in the various character situations. My sister-in-law once derided the film as "it's just about sex!" Well, it isn't "just" about sex. It is "about" the wide variety of things I just mentioned. But sex both as an erotic well-spring of inspiration and as a perverse objectification of what is human are both front and center in this powerful film. American Beauty is a sensual and aesthetic experience but there is very little actual sex in the film (one laughable scene with Caroline and her real estate mentor in bed is the exception) . It is more about human aspirations, fantasies, perversion, and coping with unrealized expectations than it is about the act of sex.
One of the many memorable scenes of the film is when Caroline comes home in the afternoon to find Lester leisurely enjoying the day after he has quit his job and bought a new sports car (classic mid-life crisis stuff). They are home alone and Lester feels that the spark is not yet completely dead between them. He starts to make out with his wife on their living room couch when, just as things look like they might heat up, it all comes crashing down.
Caroline Burnham: Lester you're gonna spill beer on the couch.
Lester Burnham: [Pauses, gets up] So what? It's just a couch.
Caroline Burnham: This is a $4,000 sofa upholstered with Italian silk! This is not just a couch!
Lester Burnham: IT'S JUST A COUCH! This isn't life! This is just stuff. And it's become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that's just nuts.[she leaves] I'm only trying to help you!
How our marketing-driven, materialist consumer culture invades our very Being is a theme that is explored repeatedly and effectively in the film. If anything, this topic is even more timely today than it was back in 1999 when the film came out, which is one of many reason American Beauty still rings so fresh and relevant.
More than anything, however, the film strikes me on this most recent viewing as being about how different people connect with and react to beauty. Beauty means different things to different characters in the film. For Ricky, Jane's confident odd-ball, free-spirit, perpetually videoing, pot-pushing boyfriend, the most beautiful thing he has ever witnessed (and captured with his video camera) is simply a plastic bag whirling in the wind around and around in an empty ally way for fifteen minutes. As Ricky describes it:
"It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in."
For Lester, Jane's hot cheerleader friend Angela, is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. But his erotic attraction to her ultimately breaks down into compassion and then he has a sort of catharsis before his tragic demise in the film. Lester, who narrates the film from a post-mortem perspective, sums it up this way at the end of the movie:
"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday."
As a viewer I actually do have some sense of what he means. But most people never discover how to relate to the life in this fashion and are, thus, the impoverished, ignorant spectators that Lester treats with such disdain through most of the picture but more gently in the end with his attempt to articulate what might be called "mindfulness" today.
American Beauty investigates a lot of things and tries to make a statement without being overly preachy. With the exception of Lester's narration after he has died, all the characters, including the living Lester, are stumbling around trying to make sense of things, to understand their feelings and to find contentment in a often unsatisfying and empty world. Some enjoy a measure of success along that path, but most of the characters just continue on as usual, trapped in a cultural landscape they don't even bother to question.
The film masterfully manages this without being preachy at all. It doesn't provide clear answers. Instead, mimicking real life, the film addresses the nature of our private struggles, both mature and youthful, as on-going concerns. More importantly, it reminds us that beauty is to be found everywhere, in the simplest of moments. And each moment can be authentically precious if we just open up to the fullness and possibility or the interrelated nature of things.
This is film a solid 9. I'd place it in my Top 50 movies of all-time if I actually had such a list. It received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Directors, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Spacey), and Best Cinematography. As I said, the entire cast should have been nominated for acting and supporting awards. I can't believe Annette Bening did not win Best Actress. Chris Cooper also gave a remarkable performance in his supporting role as the retired USMC Colonel Frank Fitts, Ricky's overbearing, abusive, homophobic father. As I mentioned, the soundtrack is exceptionally good. American Beauty is thought-provoking, stylistically distinctive, humorous, sad, and sensual. It feels as fresh today as when it was originally made. Few films offer to touch the viewer so deeply on so many levels and fewer still stand up so well to the test of time.