31. American Beauty (1999)

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring; Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney

What in truth is beauty? This is a question for which the answer is so uniquely subjective that it will probably never be conclusively defined. “American Beauty” is a movie about the perception of beauty, the superficialities of youth and the yearning of the old to be young once more. It is also about the rare ability to look beyond the surface and see that there is beauty to be found in almost anything. “American Beauty” contains moments of hilarity, sadness and profundity, and each one is beautiful in their own special way.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is facing what you might call a midlife crisis. He has come to truly loathe his office job, his daughter hates him, and his marriage has also seen its share of better days. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is a real estate saleswoman with the personality of a power drill to the brain stem. Carolyn used to know how to have fun, Lester says, but now she cares more about the “stuff” they own than she does about her husband. This has forced Lester to resort to pleasing himself in the shower and under the covers while lying in bed right next to Carolyn. He feels dead inside, which in a year’s time will be completed by his physical demise. This is no major spoiler. Lester informs us of this in his opening monologue. The story he tells is of what he is able to make of his pitiful existence in the meantime.

One night, he and Carolyn attend a high school basketball game where his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is performing as a cheerleader, along with her friend Angela (Mena Suvari). Lester takes one look at Angela, and instantly lusts after her, fumbling for words like some kind of horny teenager. A single comment from her sparks within Lester the drive to set up exercise equipment in his garage so that he can get into shape. He wants her to know he’s been working out. Before anyone starts in on how wrong it is for a middle-aged man to be fantasizing about a teenage girl, let’s break this down. The key word here is “fantasize.” Lester is not breaking any laws by finding Angela attractive. No one in a free society is sent to prison for having a feeling. It’s a little sad, yes, but not illegal.

At one of those social gatherings of the most highly respected (re: obnoxious) members of the community, Lester steps outside to share a joint with one of the waiters, a teenage boy named Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) who turns out to be his new next door neighbor. Ricky will eventually get romantically involved with Jane, but he also serves as a sort of inspiration for Lester. Ricky quits his job on the spot. He doesn’t really need it because he’s selling drugs on the side to pay for his electronic equipment, and only takes these other gigs to keep his ex-Marine father off his back. Ricky’s care-free attitude impresses Lester so much that he tells his own boss where to shove it, and manages to blackmail him on his way out the door.

The tagline for this movie is “Look closer…” This couldn’t be more appropriate. First impressions are deceptive more often than not. Not a single character in this movie is what they seem upon our introduction to them. When their complexities are revealed, the movie becomes something truly “spec-TAC-ular.” 1999’s winner for Best Picture, the movie itself calls for careful examination. In my favorite scene, Lester has decided to finally assert himself at the dinner table after growing tired of being ignored. All he wants is for someone to pass the f***ing asparagus! Also annoying him is the dinner music, of which Carolyn is always in control. Playing at that particular moment is Bobby Darin (whom Kevin Spacey later portrayed in 2004’s “Beyond the Sea”) singing “Call Me Irresponsible.” Pay attention first to the scene as it plays out. Then watch it again, this time listening carefully to the song. It fits Lester’s character so well in those two and a half minutes that it only serves to add to the scene’s greatness.

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