As the millennium approached, it seemed that Hollywood suffered an existential crisis. Masculinity came under attack (and was reclaimed) in Fight Club, Tom Cruise ordered us to ‘worship the cock’ in Magnolia and American Beauty documented one man’s mid-life meltdown.
That man is Lester Burnham (a career-best turn from Kevin Spacey), an increasingly irrelevant figure in his own life. Completely ignored by his own wife, unloved by his daughter and largely unnecessary at work, Lester informs us from the outset that he’ll ‘be dead in a year’. American Beauty tells the inevitable tale of his tragi-comic demise.
It’s little wonder Lester is so disillusioned with life. His busty daughter Jane (Thora Birch) obsessively saves for a boob-job whilst his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) carries on an increasingly obvious and badly concealed affair. They both believe Lester to be a loser and, whilst people in glass houses should never throw stones, they are completely correct.
Still, they present a united front to the world while they slowly unravel – until the day Lester falls head over heels for Angela (Mena Suvari). Unfortunately for all concerned, Angela is Jane’s teenage school-friend. It’s a lust which leads to a complete character change for Lester as he yearns for his lost youth, respect and of course, beauty.
American Beauty is not a story of paedophilia or illegality. It’s not even a story about a relationship between an older man and a younger woman. Rather, Angela serves as both catalyst and muse as Lester re-invents himself the way he’d like to be. The thought of her is enabling – and watching Spacey’s portrayal of a man who has ceased to give a fuck is extremely good fun.
Often Spacey’s characters have been introverted or even cold. Here, he cuts loose and imbues Lester with a passion, vitality and joie de vivre which is almost contagious. Who hasn’t wanted to tell their boss to fuck themselves at some point? Lester goes further and throws in a $60,000 ransom demand – which he then spunks on a vintage sports car.
Of course, Lester’s droll voiceover has already revealed the tragic denouement, which is bound up in a parallel storyline: that of dreamy Ricky and his homophobic father. Ricky is embroiled in a strange relationship with Jane, Lester spends time getting physical in his garage, Ricky’s dad is a repressed ex-Marine prone to violent outbursts and, inevitably, these factors always look likely to combine and combust.
It’s strange to describe a film about a man’s emotional breakdown as a comedy – and stranger still that it turns out to be a feel-good film. In the end, though, Kevin Spacey’s performance is so charismatic and full of vigour that he lifts elevates the whole endeavour – and the cast assembled around him give excellent supporting performances too. Highly recommended.