American Beauty [Retro Review]

“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.”

The Scoop: 1999 R, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch and Wes Bentley

Tagline: …look closer

Summary Capsule: One man goes on a journey of self-discovery and minimum-wage jobs in the last year of his life.

Justin’s Rating: I don’t often admit this, but I fill my bathtub with petunias.

Justin’s Review: Kevin Spacey does rule, and has proven himself time and again as one of the best character actors that Hollywood has to offer. The latest example? Being able to pull off a complicated and despicable character — a failing husband and father with a penchant for cradle-robbing — and making us like him despite that. The character in particular is Lester, who’s realized that his picture-perfect life really does suck. He seems to be the only one to come to the conclusion that there is more to life than just merely existing.

“Look Closer” American Beauty‘s tagline states, and it’s hard not to. This film just bombards you with images, themes, the color red, and underage nudity. How did they pull that off? I suppose they figured that they’d compromise and show Kevin Spacey nude as well, just to utterly confuse any of us that haven’t chosen our sexual orientation this week.

The only way American Beauty gets away with tackling such volatile topics (like pedophilia, drug use, homosexuality, and pretty much all the seven deadly sins) is that it does it with such unflinching honesty that states, “This is sometimes the way the world is. Either accept it, or try to make it better.” Each character could’ve easily been one-dimensional (like the anal-retentive wife), but it’s really hard to crack down on any of the people in this film. Good, bad… they’re real. And that’s what I just love about this movie. Yeah, it’s pretty emotional, and kind of hard to get through without sniffing manfully (at least in my case) in a few parts, but they don’t obviously manipulate you. Even the hardest themes in this film are dealt with a great sense of black humor. And Kevin Spacey does black humor magnificently.

I’ve talked with a lot of people who don’t like this movie. I can see that. It’s hard to know what exactly to expect when you go see it. But I’m not out to convert people to like slightly complex movies that require a bit of thought and stretching outside of one’s comfort zone; it’s not my job. At least I’ve been able to experience a great movie that made me think in new directions for a little while… and that’s what matters.

Andie’s Rating: I can’t even put into words how fantastic this movie is, but I’m gonna try.

Andie’s Review: I know that cult-wise, American Beauty does not necessarily fit the bill. It is already widely regarded as the best picture of the year. But I just couldn’t let this one get by without a review because it has now taken over first place with me. It is THE best movie I have ever seen because it is quality and entertainment and powerful all at the same time.

The premise is basically a suburban family made up of Lester and Carolyn Burhman (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) and their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and what happens to them when Lester has a sort of midlife crisis. Lester becomes obsessed, Lolita-like, with Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and Carolyn starts to have an affair with a fellow real estate agent Buddy (Peter Gallagher). Add into the mix an equally mixed up family moving in next door, whose son Ricky (Wes Bentley) becomes obsessed (oops… curious) with Jane.

My favorite storyline of the movie is Ricky’s curiousity with Jane and the relationship that develops between the two of them. In their crazy world of screwed up parents, they found each other and happiness and the performances by these two talented young actors blew me away. All the performances were extremely good, but Kevin Spacey made the movie. Nobody could’ve played Lester except him. He gave what I feel is the best performance of his career, Usual Suspects included. He was so messed-up and unlikeable and yet the audience still cares what happens to him at the end of the movie.

I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but I honestly could not find one flaw with this movie. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it makes some good points, and it really makes you think long and hard about your own life. After the movie was over, I sat in my chair for 5 solid minutes just letting it sink in while tears rolled down my cheeks. It had that much of an effect on me. If this doesn’t win best picture, I will boycott the academy awards forever. Basically, this is my long-winded way of telling you to please go see this movie.

Kyle’s Rating: Soylent American Beauty is people! IT’S MADE FROM PEOPLE!

Kyle’s Review: I’ll keep this one brief: this movie is okay. Just okay.

I went in not expecting much, and I didn’t get much in return. Kevin Spacey is fed up with life, his neighbors are gay but nice, his wife is crazy and obsessive compulsive, his daughter (the daughter from the Harrison Ford-Tom Clancy movies!) doesn’t think much of him, and his new neighbor is a crazy army dude. Apparently Spacey’s life is garbage, but once he gets a crush on a blonde high school cheerleader in her teens, gets a cooler car, gets a cooler job, starts working out and gets lots of pot from his neighbor’s profit-minded son, his life greatly improves! Maybe I would have been more affected by Spacey’s life odyssey IF I HADN’T GONE THROUGH THIS IN MY LIFE TEN TIMES ALREADY!

That’s probably my biggest problem with American Beauty, and the reason I give people who really loved it a disinterested nod to move onto a new topic of conversation: I already knew all the dark secrets of suburbia and life that this movie has to offer. I guess the quality of acting was high, but overall I don’t give this movie any great shakes. If you’re looking for a movie that will change your entire outlook on life and really give you something to think about, I recommend Better Off Dead or Fletch (no, really!). If you’re looking to see this just so you can tell gushing co-workers “yeah, I’ve seen it already! Let’s talk about Fletch!” then by all means run don’t walk to your video store. Just be sure to put some soft tissue in your palm so you won’t hurt yourself slapping your forehead after American Beauty ends and you realize many people, including all those nice voters for the Academy Awards, thought this was the best movie of 1999. As if! The Insider rules!

Clare’s Rating: Sometimes, on occasion, the Oscars get it right.

Clare’s Review: Every once in a while a movie is made that actually transcends mere “entertainment” and moves a little closer to being “art”. This is one of those films. American Beauty is a perfect example of why I LOVE to watch movies. A strange magic occurs when a deftly written script, an outstanding cast of actors, a director who’s worth his salt and a cinematographer who stretches the boundaries of his craft all come together and do their jobs symbiotically.

The story of American Beauty centers around a loser suburban dad Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), his control freak wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and his cynical daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Lester quits his job, bribes his boss and develops a major jones for Jane’s Lolita-esque friend Angela (Mena Suvari) while Jane develops a curious interest in the weirdo neighbor kid Ricky Fitts (Wes Bently) who’s dad Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) and mom Barbara (Allison Janey) keep tight hold of the control they have over practically everything. Throw in Carolyn’s torrid affair with local real estate “king” Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and you’ve got yourself a pretty decent movie about the imperfect lives of people living in what seems to be a perfect world. Now, look closer.

Nothing in this film is what it at first appears to be. Everything, from the script to the cinematography, makes this fact clear. What at first appears beautiful or strong or perfect soon is proven to be anything but and what at first appears ugly or weak or flawed is soon revealed to be the opposite. The audience is made to understand this in a variety of ways. The joy of watching this film and what makes it move from being pretty good to being outstanding is found in paying close attention to what’s really happening. Because nothing is what it seems to be, there is virtually no end to the new discoveries the audience can make about each character’s motivation, insecurities or unknown strengths.

Besides all of this interesting character stuff that necessitates amazingly strong performances by all involved (which it most certainly delivers), this movie is astonishing to look at. Again, it requires more attention than usual from the audience, but if you’re willing to engage yourself as fully as possible in what you see and hear and understand about the world these character’s inhabit, the payoff is huge. The test for any piece of art for me has always been determining if it changes every time I encounter it. A good book can never be read the same way twice. A good piece of music can be heard a million different ways. American Beauty is a movie that has what seems to be an endless supply of new surprises and details every time I see it. It is, to put it plainly, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

White Panthers unite!


  • The tagline and important theme of this movie, Look Closer, is posted in Lester’s cubicle at work
  •  The navel on the poster isn’t really Mena Suvari, it’s some stupid model. I read that somewhere.
  • If Jane gets breast *enhancements*, she’s going to be severely top-heavy. She’s deluded.
  • The Smiley fast food restaurant is actually a Carl’s Jr.
  • This film has been described as “Death of a Salesman” for the nineties. Early in the film, Carolyn mentions that “the Lomans” just moved out of the house next door.
  • In Lester’s cubicle we see a small movie poster for The Usual Suspects
  • The title of the film refers to a breed of roses
  • Near the end of the film, when Ricky opens the kitchen door to discover Lester, the hand opening the door (to reveal the blood on the table) is that of director Sam Mendes.
  • The scene where Lester is putting in an application for the counter job at Smiley Burger was actually shot at night, but it was later fixed to look like day. Notice that neither Lester nor the burger kid have shadows on their faces from the sun.
  • The last name of Mena Suvari’s character, Angela Hayes, is probably a reference to the last name of Lolita Haze, from the Vladimir Nabokov novel “Lolita.” Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man who develops an infatuation with an adolescent girl, is an update of Humbert Humbert from the classic novel Lolita. “Lester Burnham” is in fact an anagram for “Humbert learns.”
  • Thora Birch was only 17, so filming her brief nude scene required permission from her parents, who were both on the set during the filming along with child labor representatives.
  • Sam Mendes designed the two girls’ look to change over the course of the film, with Thora Birch gradually using less makeup and Mena Suvari gradually using more, to emphasize his view of their shifting perceptions of themselves.
  • Excellent, excellent score by Thomas Newman. Much like the movie, it’s offbeat, quirky, and utterly enjoyable. Great background music for any scene. The music here is very similar to every other element of the film. It’s deliberate, rich and used to full effect. It sets mood, tone and is, in my opinion, as key to the success of the story as the acting, directing and cinematography.

Groovy Quotes

Jim #1: Do you want to lose weight or are you looking to increase strength and flexibility as well?
Lester: I want to look good naked.

[about Jane]
Ricky: Not obsessed. Just curious.

Carolyn: Um, who’s car is out front?
Lester: Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule!

Lester: Smile! You’re at Mr. Smiley’s.

Catering Boss: I’m not paying you to do… whatever it is you’re doing.
Ricky: So don’t pay me.
Catering Boss: Excuse me?
Ricky: I quit. So you don’t have to pay me. Now leave me alone.
Lester: I think you just became my personal hero.

Angela: At least I’m not ugly!
Ricky: Yes you are. And you’re boring. And you’re totally ordinary. And you know it.

Ricky Fitts: Never underestimate the power of denial.

Carolyn Burnham: Honey, I watched you the whole time, and you didn’t screw up once!

Ricky Fitts: 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.

Lester Burnham: I suppose I could be 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.

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