The beauty in American culture is in its dysfunctionality. That's the message in American Beauty, one of the more compelling films made this year.
The movie is about Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who sees no point to his existence: he is in a cold and frigid relationship with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening); he barely talks to his daughter Jane (Thora Birch); and he has just been put on the firing line at his job. After meeting his new neighbour Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) and smoking some pot (and not to mention becoming infatuated with Jane's high school classmate Angela (Mena Suvari)), Lester undergoes a remarkable transformation and decides to stop being a conformist. He quits his job, much to the chagrin of his wife, and begins to work at a Burger King. (So much for rebelling against the establishment.)
There is a great deal of suspense in this story line: we know the ending right at the beginning, that Lester will be dead in a year's time. How and why isn't revealed until the very last, and then too with a bit of a twist. The movie tries to tell us that conforming to a lifestyle dictated by society leads to dysfunctionality. But finding "freedom" as illustrated in the film isn't exactly great either.
As the movie proceeds, each of the characters undergo a transformation that breaks them out of their rut and enables them to proceed to the next level of existence. Each transformation is strikingly characterised by the movement between living a life in a numbing routine (for the sake of normalcy) and living a dynamic life where everything is uncertain and changing. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. At the end, only Lester has found "freedom" (in a rather permanent sort of way, I should add): Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), the homophobic father of Ricky is left to confront his own demons; Jane and Ricky head off to become professional drug dealers; Carolyn's transformation leaves her alone; and there is nothing to fix Angela's insecurity.
Every character in the film is a rich and memorable one. The acting is superb and the casting choice is excellent. Spacey gives one of his best performances (which is saying a lot, given his career record!). The first time directing effort by Sam Mendes is superlative. The cinematography, particularly during the shifts that occur when we are given a glimpse through Lester's lenses and the sudden (and absurd) switch back to reality is well done. There is also a tremendous amount of symbolism.
American Beauty is an extremely funny yet disturbingly dark film. In a way, it reminded me of The Conformist, though the actual similarity between the two films is extremely low. Perhaps it is the mood I was in, but the cynical view portrayed by the film I think is indeed an extremely accurate depiction of our present culture. And the movie was actually positive: people in real life I think fare worse.