American Beauty is a familial character study that acts as a fantastic representation of the duality of modern suburban life. This duality is contrasted between the lives of the two neighboring families. You have the two extremes in this situation.
You have the “American life” where the father is in charge, the mother is loyal, and everything is disciplined. It’s like life in the 50′s. The father was in the marines, takes charge of his families life which end up debilitating them at times, and hates homosexuals. The mother who is barely in the film is just a figure that really seems to be there for the sole purpose of completing their “American” image. Their son, Ricky, is the exact opposite of what his family represents and what his father wants him to be. He is a pot-dealing pacifist who is able to see all of the beauty in the world. He also has made a habit of filming all of this “beauty” which includes a plastic bag in the wind, a dead bird, and his neighbor Jane Burnham.
Then you have the opposite extreme which is the Burnhams. They fully recognize that the act that they put on for the rest of the world is just that, an act. Throughout the film the two parents drift further and further away as they each begin to embody the lifestyle that they see best. This continues to the point where the father, Lester, who is brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey, has quit his job after blackmailing his boss and is focusing on a happy life which includes smoking weed, listening to pink floyd, and remaining infatuated with a friend of his daughters. On the other side of that family you have Caroline, played by Annette Benning who is also brilliant in this film. Caroline lives an unfulfilled life that is focused on her going-nowhere career as a real-estate agent. Caroline also has a hand in ruining their family from being the “typical American family” by having an affair with another real estate agent Buddy king. Their daughter, Jane, hates her suburban life because of its synthetic nature and its overall odd nature.
Why is this film fantastic? That comes from the performances by Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, and Wes Bently who plays Ricky. Kevin Spacey is a god of acting who embodies his role of Lester to the point of perfection. His droll monologues and his progressing oddity is fascinating to behold. Then there is Annette Benning whose frustrations and pain are shown so well that they make you feel for her horrible character. Finally there is Wes Bently who gets absolutely no praise for his fantastic role. His character is easily the most fascinating in the film just because of how unique he is. He makes you sense that his character is kind of broken yet has made the most of it by allowing himself not to conform to his fathers life, and to enjoy and take in everything.
This excellent directorial debut from Sam Mendes is engaging and masterfully executed. One of my favorites of all time.