To say that American Beauty was a hit back in 1999 would be an understatement. Not only did it kill at the box-office but it swept all the big Oscars including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture thereby putting director Sam Mendes on the map.
The film's plot was pretty simple: a married man goes through some kind of mid-life crisis and develops a crush on his daughter's school friend (played by Mena Suvari). But the combination of Alan Ball's sharp script, the slick cinematography, rose petal motif and Thomas Newman's stand-out score elevated the film to something more visually striking and deeper than expected. The whole thing was a satire of American middle-class values and suburban life, with the idea of beauty being contested and erratic family dynamics explored.
Kevin Spacey is Lester Burnham, the loser-turned-liberated (and pervy) father and husband who one day decides to get out of the rut he's in and change his life around with the ultimate goal of acting on a fantasy he's built in his mind about one of his daughter Jane's (Thora Birch) friends. He's good in the role, though looking back at his performance it's not exactly very subtle: he even gets rather cartoonish at times.
American Beauty is mostly like a teen movie told from the point of a view of a clueless dad, but we do also focus on Jane's relationship with Ricky, the weirdo kid next door whose bone-chilling tendency to record everyone and everything (even plastic bags) on his camera and not blink ever only makes him more attractive to Jane apparently. Annette Bening gives one of her best performances as Lester's high-strung wife Carolyn for whom material possessions and her job have become more important than communicating with her family.
Looking back, the film isn't perfect with the whole thing about Chris Cooper's creepy army dude thinking his son is having a gay relationship with Lester coming off as a bit forced and the fact the film somehow builds up to a whodunit feels unnecessary, even if the film hints at that early on with its Sunset Boulevard opening. Everything else still holds up, however, and the film is smart, funny and unique enough to be well worth it.
It's no surprise why American Beauty was such an all-around hit: Sam Mendes takes a simple story and brings Alan Ball's witty writing to life through a smooth visual style and entertaining performances. This is a dark teen comedy unlike any other and it's still something of a modern classic so I do recommend it.
Anything but ordinary.