American Beauty

USA 1999

Reviewed by Kevin Jackson


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Connecticut, the present. Lester Burnham's life is cracking up: his wife Carolyn, an estate agent, and his daughter Jane both despise him; his new boss is threatening to fire him. Lester becomes obsessed with his daughter's schoolmate, the sexually precocious Angela, after seeing her perform a cheerleading routine. Meanwhile, Ricky - the son of the Burnhams' new next-door neighbour, a violent and reactionary retired marine colonel named Frank Fitts - makes videos of Jane.

Pursuing his lost youth, Lester quits work and takes a job in a fast-food restaurant. He also starts to work out and indulge in recreational drugs supplied by Ricky. Carolyn begins an affair with her commercial rival Buddy Kane, and Jane and Ricky begin to fall in love. Disgusted by her father's infatuation with Angela, Jane asks Ricky to kill him. Lester finds out about Carolyn's affair when she and Buddy drive by his new workplace for burgers. Buddy breaks off the affair.

One night, Frank spies on Ricky and Lester. Because of the angle from which he sees them rolling and smoking a joint, Frank mistakenly concludes Lester is forcing the boy to fellate him. Frank beats up his son, so Ricky prepares to leave town with Jane. Distraught, Carolyn drives through the night with a loaded gun. Frank confronts Lester, apparently with violence in mind, but instead makes a homosexual advance which Lester refuses. Lester finally gets a chance to have sex with Angela, but on finding she's actually a virgin, grows paternal instead. Frank enters the house and shoots Lester. At the moment of his death, Lester sees his life pass before him.


The raw material of American Beauty does not, let's be frank, sound very promising. A satirical portrait of suburban conformity? My dear, how terribly bold. A comic study of an homme moyen sensuel in the throes of a midlife crisis? How fearsomely original.

This just goes to show how misleading mere synopses can be. If there's hardly anything in the film's plot which isn't a cliché, there's hardly anything in its execution which doesn't seem effortlessly, indeed brilliantly, to transcend cliché. It's a wonderfully resourceful and sombre comedy and, like the greatest examples of the form, is as much about the perennial themes of self-delusion, conceit and madness as it is about the ephemeral idiocies of the day. To compare the story of Lester Burnham's midlife crisis with other comedies about ageing guys with the hots for a nubile girl (Blame It on Rio, say) would be as misconceived as bracketing The Alchemist with Are You Being Served? Even when American Beauty's comedy is at its broadest and most grotesque - and there are moments which are every bit as brazenly laugh-seeking and laugh-getting as a good episode of Frasier or The Simpsons - the proceedings are given some unexpected nuance.

Take the scene in which Lester's wife Carolyn and her ghastly lover Buddy drive by the fast-food joint and are served by Lester in his adopted role as a born-again proletarian. It plays well enough as a farcical agony of embarrassment, but what really tells in the scene is the note of steely aplomb in Lester's voice as he asks them if they'd like special sauce with their order. If only for a second or two, he's made himself top dog by glorying in the position of bottom dog, and the sense of power tastes more delicious to him than any fancy ketchup.

Kevin Spacey has had so many raves over the past few years that it seems almost redundant to point out what a superbly accomplished actor he is. But American Beauty allows him to shine in certain ways we've not seen before. What renders his performance as Lester so satisfying is partly his ability to make the man seem both sap and hero (a man who should be acting his age, for God's sake, and is absolutely right not to act his age) and partly his evocation of a soul managing to grow, or be refound, out of banal misery. If I had to pick a single, simple moment from the whole film to demonstrate to sceptics quite how remarkable he is, it would probably be the one when he tells Frank he's not up for gay sex. Spacey delivers it with unimpeachable gentleness: it's the actorly equivalent of a note hit by a singer with perfect pitch.

With a central performance of this calibre, probably the most remarkable thing about American Beauty is that Spacey doesn't upset the film's dramatic balance. Sam Mendes, as you might expect of a director with a hefty track record in the theatre (he directed The Rise and Fall of Little Voice on stage), has made Alan Ball's intricate script play fluently as an ensemble piece, deftly serving every change of tone from goofy knockabout to beady observation.

You'd never guess Mendes was new to the cinema, though you might infer his knowledge of the stage from his penchant for head-on tableau compositions and the occasional touch of heightened reality in the performances, as with Annette Bening's sado-masochistic pep talk to herself about selling houses. Time and again, you fear Mendes won't be able to sustain such a confident shuffling of his pack, but somehow he does, and for once the result is a genuine surprise. At the end of the press screening I saw, a total stranger came up to me and said, in tones of disbelief, "That was a gem!" Politeness obliged me to agree; so did honesty.


Sam Mendes
Bruce Cohen
Dan Jinks
Alan Ball
Director of Photography
Conrad L. Hall
Tariq Anwar
Christopher Greenbury
Production Designer
Naomi Shohan
Thomas Newman
©DreamWorks LLC
Production Companies
DreamWorks Pictures presents a Jinks/Cohen Company production
Stan Wlodkowski
Alan Ball
Production Controller
Jim Turner
Production Co-ordinator
Christa Vausbinder
Unit Production Manager
Cristen Carr Strubbe
Location Manager
Christine Bonnem
Martin Cohen
Lisa Dennis Kennedy
Lisa Marie Serra
Assistant Directors
Tony Adler
Carey Dietrich
Rosemary Cremona
Peter E. Hirsch
Stephanie Kime
2nd Unit:
Chris Edmonds
Michelle Muggs Edmonds
Script Supervisors
Ana Maria Quintana
2nd Unit:
Marilyn Giardino-Zyeh
Debra Zane
ADR Voice:
L.A. MadDogs
2nd Unit Directors of Photography
Conrad W. Hall
David Golia
Camera Operators
Aaron Pazanti
Geoffrey Haley
Special Visual Effects
CFC/MVFX, Los Angeles
Rob Hodgson
David Goldberg
Janet Yale
Jonathan F. Styrlund
Fortunato Frattasio
Matt Dessero
3D Artists:
Robert Chapin
John Cassella Jr
Paint/Roto Artists:
Tomme B. Stanley
Susan Evans
Nicolle Cornute
Matt Magnolia
Managing Director:
Don Fly
Special Effects Co-ordinator
John C. Hartigan
Art Director
David S. Lazan
Set Designers
Andrea Dopaso
Suzan Wexler
Set Decorator
Jan K. Bergstrom
Storyboard Artists
Robin Richesson
Tony Chance
Costume Designer
Julie Weiss
Costume Supervisor
Hope B. Slepak
Tania McComas
Christine M. Steele
2nd Unit, Artist:
Juliet Loveland
Key Hair Stylist
Carol A. O'connell
Hair Stylists
Patricia Dehaney-Le May
2nd Unit:
Cheri Ruff
Steve R. Soussana
Pacific Title/Mirage
Thomas Pasatieri
Music Supervisor
Chris Douridas
Executive in Charge of Music
Todd Homme
Music Editors
Bill Bernstein
Joanie Diener
Music Recordist/Mixer
Dennis Sands
"Because" by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, performed by Elliott Smith; "Bali Ha'i" by Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers, performed by Peggy Lee; "On Broadway" by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, arranged by Paul Lavender; "Use Me" by/performed by Bill Withers; "Open the Door" by/performed by Betty Carter; "Tenderfoot" by Rick Arbuckle, performed by Zen Radio; "Something Grand" by Hilton Ruiz, performed by Hilton Ruiz Ensemble; "We Haven't Turned Around" by Ian Ball, Paul Blackburn, Thomas Gray, Benjamin Ottewell, Oliver Peacock, performed by Gomez; "Cancer for the Cure" by E & Mickey Petralia, performed by Eels; "American Woman" by Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Jim Kale, Gary Peterson, performed by The Guess Who; "All along the Watchtower" by/performed by Bob Dylan; "Don't Rain on My Parade" by Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, performed by Bobby Darin; "Call Me Irresponsible", "Where Love Has Gone" by Sammy Cahn, James Van Heusen, performed by Bobby Darin; "As Long As I'm Singing" by/performed by Bobby Darin; "The Seeker" by Pete Townshend, performed by The Who; "All Right Now" by Andy Fraser, Paul Rodgers, performed by Free; "Don't Let It Bring You Down" by Neil Young, performed by Annie Lennox
Paula Abdul
Production Sound Mixer
Richard Van Dyke
Re-recording Mixers
Scott Millan
Bob Beemer
Additional Audio
Mark Ormandy
Supervising Sound Editor
Scott Martin Gershin
Dialogue Editors
Simon Coke
Mark Gordon
Sound Effects Editors
Alan Rankin
Bryan Bowen
Trevor Jolly
Brian Basham
Richard Weingart
Dean Drabin
Jeffrey B. Wilhoit
James Moriana
Greg Zimmerman
Nerses Gezalyan
Peter Zinda
Tom Ozanich
Deborah Ricketts
Stunt Co-ordinator
Ben Scott
Animal Handler
Joy A. Green
2nd Unit Pilot
Robert Bobby Z Zajonc
Kevin Spacey
Lester Burnham
Annette Bening
Carolyn Burnham
Thora Birch
Jane Burnham
Wes Bentley
Ricky Fitts
Mena Suvari
Angela Hayes
Peter Gallagher
Buddy Kane
Allison Janney
Barbara Fitts
Scott Bakula
Jim Olmeyer
Sam Robards
Jim Berkley
Chris Cooper
Colonel Frank Fitts
Barry Del Sherman
Ara Celi
sale house woman 1
John Cho
sale house man 1
Fort Atkinson
sale house man 2
Sue Casey
sale house woman 2
Kent Faulcon
sale house man 3
Brenda Wehle
Lisa Cloud
sale house women 4
Alison Faulk
Krista Goodsitt
Lily Houtkin
Carolina Lancaster
Romana Leah
Chekesha Van Putten
Emily Zachary
Nancy Anderson
Reshma Gajjar
Stephanie Rizzo
Heather Joy Sher
Chelsea Hertford
teenage girls
Amber Smith
Christy Kane
Joel McCrary
catering boss
Marissa Jaret Winokur
Janine, Mr Smiley's counter woman
Dennis Anderson
Mr Smiley's manager
Matthew Kimbrough
firing range attendant
Erin Cathryn Strubbe
young Jane Burnham
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
10,969 feet
121 minutes 53 seconds
Colour by
Prints by
Dolby digital/Digital DTS sound/SDDS
Super 35 [2.35:1]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011