American Beauty (1999)
September 27, 2022 9:00 AM - Subscribe

Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis, decides to turn his hectic life around after developing an infatuation with his daughter's attractive friend.

Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards, Barry Del Sherman, and John Cho.

Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Alan Ball.

87% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but with many of those reviews being contemporaneous and the film's reputation having taken a nosedive since then, odds are that many of those critics would take that praise back.

Currently streaming in the US on Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hoopla, and free with ads on Pluto TV. Also available for digital rental on multiple outlets. JustWatch listing.
posted by DirtyOldTown (39 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 


As the person who posted this, using the default IMDB plot description, I'd like to say that it's more like Lester decides to detonate his life by retreating into being a post-adolescent dickhead than "turning it around."

This movie is in a dead heat with Crash (the Best Picture winner, not the Cronenberg one) for acclaimed movie from around the turn of the century that people mostly consider a real piece of shit now. Mendes's direction is pretty solid and the score is great, but the underlying thematic stuff ranges between piffle to ick.

But I'm still plugging in FF's gaps from the IMDB Top 250, so here you go.

If someone can make a good case for why I'm wrong to treat this like curdled skim milk, I'm open to it, but I'm not sure you will convince me.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:04 AM on September 27, 2022 [10 favorites]


I liked this bit from the Time article: "it’s one of the most laughably square movies about the destructiveness of conformity ever made." And even before Kevin Spacey's MeToo moment(s), I had a hard time identifying with his character; he always seemed more pathetic than sympathetic. Lots of good actors who deserved better than this movie (didn't even remember Allison Janney in it).
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:17 AM on September 27, 2022 [2 favorites]


I liked the soundtrack....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on September 27, 2022 [1 favorite]


The film was apparently intended to be a murder mystery and starts off with the trial of Jane and Ricky. The segment which shows each character when they hear the gun shot makes sense in that lens. The movie shows all these characters have reason to want to kill Lester and we're all supposed to be shocked it's the abusive homophobic former military dad who is the killer. I was not at all shocked.
posted by miss-lapin at 9:38 AM on September 27, 2022


I saw this in the same on-base theater in Germany where I saw The Sixth Sense. I think it had not quite won the Academy Award by the time we got it, but it was pretty clearly going to from all the coverage we'd seen at that point, so anticipation was high. A bunch of us made our way excitedly into the theater, nodding to our two-star commanding general seated in the row behind us (he would later become the highest-ranking person in the entire Army).

Two hours later, we were very careful to not look behind us as we left the theater. Nor did we do our usual hanging out in the parking lot so I could have a cigarette before we went to the bar. Somehow, silently, we agreed to just keep walking so we could get off base quickly and efficiently before exploding in peals of laughter that we had managed to hold in through this weird bad soft-core movie.
posted by Etrigan at 9:45 AM on September 27, 2022 [7 favorites]


This is another movie ruined by Kevin Spacey's sexual predation. I can't watch him on screen knowing what we know now, particularly playing any role dealing with sexuality or gay men.
posted by Nelson at 9:48 AM on September 27, 2022 [4 favorites]


I saw this when it first came to video, and could never see Spacey’s character as anything other than pathetic. The whole movie kind of creeped me out.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:31 AM on September 27, 2022


Ooh...I absolutely loved this movie back then, which means I'm afraid to watch it again. I think I'd prefer to preserve my old impression of it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:00 AM on September 27, 2022 [4 favorites]


Well, actually, Janine is senior drive through manager, so you kind of are on her turf.

Some amazing acting moments in this movie, including Annette Benning's breakdown at the place she was trying to sell.
posted by ftm at 11:09 AM on September 27, 2022 [6 favorites]


I vaguely remember being somewhat bafffled and put off by the movie, but the soundtrack has been in my rotation ever since. Good weird instrumental music.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:23 AM on September 27, 2022 [1 favorite]


This and Fight Club came out within like a month of each other. I remember, as a 19-year-old who had not yet come to terms with his own alienation and depression, thinking very highly of both movies and thinking of them as kind of a diptych about aimlessness and material success.

I suspect that I would have a very different reaction to both movies today, but thematically they still feel of a piece, to me.
posted by gauche at 11:36 AM on September 27, 2022 [4 favorites]


As I went off to college, I got a new laptop that had a DVD-ROM and, incredibly, a dongle that contained composite-out to hook it up to a TV. So the week before I went to school I went and bought a bunch of DVDs that I was intrigued to watch--some I'd seen before, and some I hadn't. Off the top of my head, I had Fight Club, Pi, the 2000 release of the Stanley Kubrick collection (7 films, Lolita through Full Metal Jacket), Caddyshack (see username), and American Beauty. Most of those DVDs stayed with me for years: a few got lent away, and a few delaminated, but I generally kept them and watched them all again at least once in the next twenty years.

I left American Beauty behind when I moved out of freshmen dorms and never looked back.
posted by thecaddy at 12:04 PM on September 27, 2022


I saw it in the theater. I was 14 and I remember my friends all thought this movie was deep as shit.

Then at some point another friend group was talking about it and one girl piped up with something like "it's really obvious to me anyone who thought this was anything other than a bad and self-indulgent horror movie has definitely not been a teen whose parents' marriage was violently falling apart" and honestly I've never felt good about it since. One of those moments where I had my privilege pointed out to me at just the right moment to hit and hit hard.
posted by potrzebie at 12:09 PM on September 27, 2022 [10 favorites]


I hated this fucking movie back in 1999 and I’m sure I would hate it even more now that I’m middle-aged. Spacey or no (and frankly, if it were a good movie, I wouldn’t care whether Spacey was in it), the picture was garbage when it came out — a bullshit bougie wet dream about enlightenment where no one is actually ever enlightened.
posted by holborne at 12:13 PM on September 27, 2022 [5 favorites]


My judgment of a film from trailer alone has never been so roundly vindicated by history as with this movie.
posted by praemunire at 12:25 PM on September 27, 2022 [4 favorites]


They both were cancelled so--Louie C.K. was right about Spacey in this one.
posted by kingdead at 1:04 PM on September 27, 2022


I hated, hated, hated this film when I saw it, as the middle section of an impromptu back-to-back-to-back “America Blows” film fest in early autumn 1999, consisting of Three Kings, this piece of crap, and Fight Club. Time has not been kind to any of these films, but man oh man I still hate this and every other Mendes film I’ve ever seen. (Don’t get me started on Road to Perdition.)
posted by infinitewindow at 1:56 PM on September 27, 2022


[This is what I wrote about American Beauty when I saw it for the first time in 2014.]

I had never seen much of American Beauty before, knowing it only by reputation. It was supposed to be excellent and deep. It is an excellent film. But I was still underwhelmed; it didn't blow me away. It actually left me feeling a little disappointed.

The Good
If American Beauty has anything going for it, 100%, it is the acting. The film is perfectly cast and everyone is superb. I was particularly impressed with Annette Bening as Carolyn. She has terrific range in her performance. Annette deserved every award. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by Mena Suvari as Angela. She's very expressive in her performance, and I love that. And then there is Wes Bentley as Ricky, who nails the character. Poor Wes. What he could have done in the aughts if he hadn't become a heroin addict.

The Bad
American Beauty is more style than substance. I know it's all about repression and being free and true to one's self and on and on. It's a message film and everything has meaning. But I found whatever message the film had to be buried. Meaning or not, American Beauty is hyperdramatic, hyperstylized. Everything in the film is a few notches above reality. And it's rather overwhelming. Besides that, the story and the writing are so good, who cares about the message. I cared more about the characters. Honestly, I would have liked a Hollywood happy ending.

The Ugly
American Beauty is a very male film. The males are front and center, and their character arcs drive the plot of the film. Lester realizing what's important in life. The Colonel and his repressed homosexuality. Ricky breaking free from his father. And while the women had their arcs, I felt like they didn't really exist on their own, that they were defined by their relationships with the men. Jane decides to run away with Ricky. Angela and Lester don't have sex because Lester changes his mind. And, Carolyn is devastated by Lester's death.
posted by Stuka at 2:37 PM on September 27, 2022 [6 favorites]


Within the first ten seconds, I was rolling my eyes. I can't believe it's been 23 years.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:43 PM on September 27, 2022 [1 favorite]


I haven't seen this movie in twenty years, but my distinct impression at the time was that Lester was not a villain, per se, but was definitely kind of an asshole, and that his crush on his daughter's friend was pathetic, and that it was meant to be seen as pathetic. His wife was also kind of an asshole. And the kid with the paper bag was a sad weirdo! I laughed at that scene in the theater, then stopped when I realized I was the only one laughing. I was very surprised when I soon discovered that most people took the film at face value. I was more surprised when I gradually understood that everyone involved with the film also appeared to take the film at face value.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:19 PM on September 27, 2022 [6 favorites]


I remember not hating this movie but being annoyed that it overshadowed Eyes Wide Shut, a far better movie that mines a lot of the same territory.
posted by octothorpe at 3:58 PM on September 27, 2022 [2 favorites]


This and Fight Club came out within like a month of each other. I remember, as a 19-year-old who had not yet come to terms with his own alienation and depression, thinking very highly of both movies and thinking of them as kind of a diptych about aimlessness and material success.

Of the two, Fight Club holds up better, but I don't think it's just the films themselves, but that 90s-zeitgeist of concern for how we're all trapped in sad soft banal materialistic lives and life is just too easy and too meaningless (you can throw Eyes Wide Shut into that category as well IMO, and lots of other late-90s early-aughts media less directly) has really aged poorly. Nowadays I almost wistfully hope that Gen Z and future generations will someday get to experience a world in which movies about the suffocating weight of leading an ordinary humdrum suburban life will get to seem meaningful instead of reading as ignorantly privileged whining.

Any time I feel the urge to watch Thora Birch in something there's always the vastly superior Ghost World, anyhow.
posted by mstokes650 at 4:07 PM on September 27, 2022 [11 favorites]


kittens for breakfast: my distinct impression at the time was that Lester was not a villain, per se, but was definitely kind of an asshole, and that his crush on his daughter's friend was pathetic, and that it was meant to be seen as pathetic.

This was my take as well, that it was a redemption arc for Lester. Immature, toxic twat at the beginning, goes thru [montage] to put his life and marriage back together, and passes the ultimate test of not taking advantage of the girl he'd fantasized about once he has the power to do so. I actually remember that latter scene being done with some delicacy and grace that has unfortunately been bulldozed by everything about Spacey that has come out since as well as the other weaknesses in the story.
posted by sapere aude at 4:18 PM on September 27, 2022 [4 favorites]


my immigrant in-laws went to see it based on the title alone (America! Beauty!) and came out of the theater very confused.
posted by roue at 7:09 PM on September 27, 2022


My only lasting memory of this movie is that damn plastic bag.
posted by Frayed Knot at 8:03 PM on September 27, 2022 [4 favorites]


My lasting memory of this movie is the college kid sitting behind us in the theater who couldn't stop making snarky/"profound" comments, and his date who obviously wanted to kill him. In the scene where Annette Bening is crying because nobody came to her open house, he laughed and then said "oh, we laugh at misery!".

I remember thinking the movie was okay, but way overrated--in particular, nowhere near as good as Ordinary People, which it seemed to be cribbing from...

Although the photography was beautiful (Conrad Hall).
posted by equalpants at 8:26 PM on September 27, 2022


I don't have much to say about this movie, aside from the fact that I always get it confused with Magnolia, for some reason.
posted by Literaryhero at 9:51 PM on September 27, 2022


I know when I was in an abusive marriage, the image of Allison Janney sitting there trying not to trigger any kind of outburst really resonated with me and got me to realize "if that's how things are feeling, it's probably not good", so I guess that's a good point about the movie.
posted by LionIndex at 9:54 PM on September 27, 2022 [6 favorites]


Yeah, like Frayed Knot, my main takeaway from this movie is that now whenever I see a plastic bag in the wind, I think about how it's just soo beautiful.
posted by umbú at 11:32 AM on September 28, 2022 [1 favorite]


Of the two, Fight Club holds up better

I really think Fight Club holds up pretty well, because it doesn’t actually lose anything if you don’t take a word of it seriously. It’s still just a wild ride of a movie.
posted by atoxyl at 12:01 PM on September 28, 2022


Pretty different from reputation shift than Fight Club, imo.

The shift in Fight Club's reputation isn't from people belatedly realizing it was never good (or finally feeling comfortable years after to say they never liked it), as it was with American Beauty.

It's mostly from people who had liked Fight Club to one degree or another as a satire realizing that maybe half of the film's other fans never got the joke, and then being horrified/appalled by that. It was that feeling you get as a bright kid in high school or college and having A Clockwork Orange come up, only to realize the person you're speaking to thinks the droogs are "badass."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:18 PM on September 28, 2022 [11 favorites]


My only lasting memory of this movie is that damn plastic bag.

Even that part of the movie was later surpassed by Plastic Bag.
posted by mstokes650 at 8:22 AM on September 29, 2022 [1 favorite]


My only lasting memory of this movie is that damn plastic bag.

That was my main take-away-too. Later got a good chuckle out of me when it was parodied in Not Another High School Movie, but teenage-me was still perfectly willing to take it at face value on first watch. The message seemed straightforward enough - the American dream with the wife and kids and picket fence is a scam (thesis), but its rejection by the protagonist also feels juvenile and small (anti-thesis), which requires a last-act redemption of the protagonist finding enlightenment in his dying moments (synthesis). We shouldn't look for beauty in pre-fabricated fantasies (of suburban bliss, or edgelord transgression) - the image of the naked teenage girl half covered by rose petals couldn't convey a more conventional idea of beauty, after all - but in the dancing trash-bag, the sublimity of the mundane.

It felt like that sort of movie mainly designed as an intellectual exercise, its chief reward a certain smugness of getting it, and while even then, I would have never embarrassed myself by listing something like that among my favourites, I still had a lot more patience for that kind of thing at that age. I did feel a bit satisfied about getting it after all. Of course it had approximately zero emotional resonance for me, but I was open to entertaining the possibility that it might, once I would reach the age of the protagonist.

And now, as that ages comes closer, I have to say ... nah. With the financial crisis, approaching climate disaster, rise of fascism, assault on democracy, global pandemic, etc, etc, ennui hasn't nearly been as much of an issue in my adulthood as certain films in the 90 led me to expect.
posted by sohalt at 11:58 AM on September 29, 2022 [1 favorite]


I have fond memories of this movie as one of the first things that I ever truly, passionately hated. I saw it when I was 18, with a toxic girlfriend who showed it to me because she loved it, and I remember just watching scene by scene and thinking... god, could you possibly be more self-congratulatory about anything this obvious?

Every aspect of it is just so smug. The world that Kevin Spacey is rebelling against is so blatantly, parodically bad. His "lurid" psychosexual rebellion is so blatantly, parodically "oh it's so bad but it feels so GOOD." His realization, at the end, that omg she's just a child is done in the most blatant, parodic "look at him, rediscovering his decency" way. His death at the hand of the confused, closeted boy is... you get the picture.

It taught me so much about how "critical acclaim" is often just as dumb and as herdlike as "mass appeal"—how you can manipulate people into thinking that they're experiencing meaning in the same way that you can manipulate people into thinking they're laughing or crying or being entertained. Which led me to eventually realize that "mass appeal" was often sophisticated and interesting, so in a weird way this movie helped me become less of an elitist asshole, just by introducing me to wannabe elitist assholes who loved this film and deciding that I didn't want any part of their game either.

Fight Club, by comparison, has a genuine integrity to it. I disliked it the first time I saw it, not because it wasn't masterfully made, but because its sheer virtuosity only made its influence on Shitty Dude Culture more uncomfortable. Over time, I've found a way to separate the art from the shitty culture that it inspired, and I think that the film itself stands alone. And I agree with the take that it's still a great a depiction of how Shitty Dudes find themselves radicalized, in terms of both motive and "solution," so it's weirdly become a way to find empathy for a group of people who are generally hard to empathize with.

And Eyes Wide Shut remains a fucking masterpiece, one that imo feels way LESS dated now than it did when it was first release. Give it another ten years, and it'll feel all sorts of contemporary, I betcha.

A masturbatory male film about a masturbatory male, mainly beloved by male masturbators and their apologists.
(If you are neither, then please forgive me this mean-but-fun overgeneralization.)
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 2:33 PM on September 30, 2022 [4 favorites]


I wasn't going to comment on this post, but then I read your comment. 9/11 was my second day at work as a professor at NYU. For two years I went to work and being there made me freak out each and every day and for every moment I was there. It was agony but I couldn't quit because it was a dream college. Getting a job like that isn't easy and quitting wasn't an option in my family. When I think about how much medication I took just to function. That's all on me, but for some reason this movie soothed me. So during that period, I would put it on the moment I got home. I don't know how many times I watched it. I think part of it was Benning's character was very much like my mom.

So I guess this masturbatory male film about a masturbatory male and beloved by masturbory males and their apologists saved me during a really awful time. Sorry about that.
posted by miss-lapin at 6:59 AM on October 1, 2022 [2 favorites]


I forgot to add-I continued working at nyu but those 2 years were hard. After that I was able to be on campus without PTSD kicking in.
posted by miss-lapin at 7:01 AM on October 1, 2022


This is another movie ruined by Kevin Spacey's sexual predation. I can't watch him on screen knowing what we know now, particularly playing any role dealing with sexuality or gay men.

I've loved quite a few movies Kevin Spacey's been in. I formed relationships with those movies before we found out what a bad person he is. I won't watch new movies he's in, and I'm reluctant to rewatch movies he's in, depending on the role.

I really like Swimming with Sharks, but he's got too big a part for me to watch again. I can't quit Glengarry Glen Ross, The Usual Suspects, or L.A. Confidential, though.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:39 PM on October 1, 2022 [1 favorite]


It's mostly from people who had liked Fight Club to one degree or another as a satire realizing that maybe half of the film's other fans never got the joke, and then being horrified/appalled by that. It was that feeling you get as a bright kid in high school or college and having A Clockwork Orange come up, only to realize the person you're speaking to thinks the droogs are "badass."

Laura Miller did an review/overview of Palahniuk's work for Salon a while back that was broadly hostile toward all of it, sometimes with little justification; one of her specific criticisms of one of his works had to do with a character drinking orange wine, which she didn't think existed, although it does. It's not until near the end of the piece that she reveals that she had a deeply unpleasant encounter with one of his fans in an airport somewhere who couldn't believe that she couldn't recognize Palahniuk's genius.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:12 PM on October 2, 2022


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