Netflix review: Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” (1999)

Sam Mendes would go on to direct another critique of suburbia after his American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road (2008). Together, the two are companion pieces – one sees the death of its leading man, the other, its leading lady.

Revolutionary Road, the later release in Mendes’s filmography (and starring his then-wife, Kate Winslet), marks a maturation of his “suburban prison” theme.

Meaning American Beauty is the more immature film.

If you don’t know what to watch next, American Beauty is available to stream on Netflix. The drama was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture as well as Best Director.

Best Original Screenplay winner Alan Ball was inspired by the “Long Island Lolita” media scandal.

As a framing device straight out of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Lester Burnham (Best Actor Kevin Spacey) narrates the movie from beyond the grave after his murder at the hands of an unknown assailant.

He is a middle-aged magazine executive who is unhappily married to a real estate broker, Carolyn (Best Actress nominee Annette Bening), and father to an angsty teenager named Jane (Thora Birch).

Around the same time Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) moves in next door with his repressed wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and voyeuristic filmmaker son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari).

American Beauty is frequently cited as among the worst Best Picture winners of all time, and its age has sullied it to a degree. Spacey’s own perverted past, which came to light during the #MeToo movement, makes his characterization of the pedophilic Lester a little too “realistic.”

That the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science celebrated him with an Oscar is further proof of the predator culture in Hollywood.

But, even if somebody else played Lester, the picture would still be flawed. It is a toxic masculine power fantasy for pedophiles.

Carolyn is an offensive caricature of career women, Ricky is a vehicle of wish fulfillment for Hollywood artists who objectify, fetishize, or otherwise obsess over their “muses,” and Frank proliferates the homophobic myth that male homophobes are closeted gay men.

Still, like the rose for which it is named, American Beauty is one of the most dramatically, aesthetically, and overall cinematically “beautiful” films ever made, thorns and all.

Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography externalizes Lester’s perversion for the audience as poetically as such imagery can be photographed.

Coupled with Thomas Newman’s Heavenly nominated score and Mendes’s stage-like direction, it is some of the most striking non-CGI camerawork ever put to celluloid.

And Spacey’s line delivery is at times lyrical. His final voiceover never fails to raise chills. His performance is unethically good in that it is sympathetic, but, to the critical media consumer, it is still well worth the watch.

But it is Ball’s script that Spacey reads with such musicality, and what a script it is. It can be in equal measure comedic and stirring. Its satirical tone rings sharply inside us as a dark, sinfully watchable mood, as though pricked with… well… an American beauty.

For better or worse, American Beauty is a feat of American filmmaking out of a Hollywood dominated by abusive, older men. Its production value is impeccable, if not its ethos. At least Lester gets what he deserves at the end.