Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch)
This is one of those films not easily defined. It is a troubling exploration of marriage, bad marriage in particular, frustration, aging, teen angst, sexual frustration, routine, self esteem and honesty.
It revolves around Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) who believes that his wife and daughter think he’s a loser. The highlight of his day is his masturbating in the shower before going to work selling advertising for a magazine. Carolyn, his wife (Annette Bening) displays the fastidiousness that is the hallmark of her job, that of a real estate broker She is as neat as a pin in her house and garden and both covets competitor Buddy Kane’s success as much as she fears it. Jane, (Thora Birch) is intriguing as the somber and totally unhappy daughter who finds both parents equally repulsive.
Chided into taking an interest in Jane, Lester agrees to attend the high school basketball game where she’s on the cheerleading squad. Lester watches, bored to tears until he eyes the ultimate “American Beauty”, a long haired blonde lass who’s dancing her heart out, in his fantasy, just for him. He embarrasses himself when he meets Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), his daughter’s best friend after the game and this sets up the impetus for Lester to make a U-turn and recover the spontaneity and lust for life that has been long gone. Unfortunately for Lester, the search involves hearty fantasies of Angela that become nearly uncontrollable.
A new family moves in next door, headed by the deadly serious Marine Colonel Frank Fitts, superbly played by Chris Cooper, his near catatonic wife Barbara (Allison Janney) and their 18-year old son Ricky (Wes Bentley), an intense, soft spoken guy who has taken up the rather strange hobby of videotaping Jane, whom he finds fascinating. When not entertaining himself making home movies, or earning a living selling dope, Ricky’s forced to cope with his demanding, violent father with the marine mentality for discipline.
Meanwhile, Carolyn goes off searching for the success and self respect she needs in the arms of Buddy Kane, King of Real Estate.
Lester’s life changes dramatically. He quits his job and journeys into dangerous territory: sexual obsession of Angela, drug use and a new carefree attitude that drives both wife and daughter even more insane.
Both Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening are absolutely marvelous as partners with highly separate agendas. The film is disconcerting and yet remarkably funny and serious at the same time. You don’t quite know where the story is going but you’re willing to enjoy the journey nevertheless. It was written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, both of whom deserve huge credit for bringing this sparkling event to the screen.
Lotta says: This is the must see breakthrough film of the year.