American Beauty is a 1999 drama film set in modern American suburbia. Starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, it was the feature film debut for writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes. A massive success both critically and commercially, all four were nominated for Academy Awards, and the film won a total of five including Best Picture.
Lester Burnham (Spacey) is a 42-year-old father and advertising executive who serves as the film's narrator. Lester's family life is messyhis wife Carolyn (Bening) is an ambitious realtor who feels that she is unsuccessful at fulfilling her potential, and his 16-year-old daughter Jane (Birch) is unhappy and struggling with self-esteem issues. Lester himself is a self-described loser: boring, faceless and easy to forget. Lester is reinvigorated, however, when he meets Jane's friend and classmate Angela Hayes (Suvari) at a high school basketball game. Lester immediately develops an obvious infatuation with Angela, much to his daughter's embarrassment. Throughout the film, Lester has fantasies involving a sexually aggressive Angela and red rose petals. The Burnhams' new neighbors are Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Cooper), his distracted wife Barbara (Janney), and his camcorder-obsessed son Ricky (Bentley). When confronted with the gay couple living two doors down, Col. Fitts displays a distinctly bigoted attitude.
Over the course of a few days, each of the Burnhams individually makes a life-changing choice. Carolyn meets real estate rival Buddy Kane for a business lunch and ends up beginning an affair with him, and later takes up gun lessons. Lester blackmails his boss for $60,000, quits his job, and takes up low-pressure employment as a burger-flipper at a fast food chain. He continues to liberate himself by trading in his Toyota Camry for his dream car, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, starts working out to impress Angela, and starts smoking a genetically enhanced form of marijuana. Jane, while growing distant from Angela, develops a romantic relationship with Ricky, having bonded over what he considers to be his most beautiful camcorder footage he has ever filmed, that of a plastic grocery bag dancing in the wind. Ricky himself quickly befriends Lester and secretly acts as Lester's marijuana supplier.
Col. Fitts, concerned over the growing relationship between Lester and Ricky, roots through his son's possessions, finding footage of Lester working out in the nude (captured by chance while Ricky was filming Jane through her bedroom window)- slowly bringing him to the conclusion that his son is gay. Buddy and Carolyn are found out by Lester, who seems to be completely unfazed by his wife's infidelity. Carolyn, who is almost more devastated by Lester's indifference than by her being exposed as an adulteress, is further dismayed when Buddy reacts by breaking off the affair. As evening falls, Ricky returns home to find his father waiting for him with fists and vitriol, having mistaken his drug rendezvous with Lester for a sexual affair. Realising this as an opportunity for freedom, Ricky falsely agrees that he is gay and goads his violent father until he is thrown out. Ricky rushes to Jane's house and asks her to flee with him to New York City - something she agrees to, much to the dismay of Angela, who quickly protests. Ricky shoots her down with her deepest fear: that she is boring and completely ordinary. Broken and dismayed, Angela storms out of the room, leaving Jane and Ricky to concile.
Lester finds an emotionally fragile Col. Fitts standing outside in the pouring rain and attempts to comfort him, but is taken by surprise when Fitts kisses him. Lester gently rebuffs him, telling him he has the wrong idea. Fitts, shamed and broken, wanders back into the rain. Meanwhile, Carolyn sits alone in her car on the side of the road, holding her gun and becoming more and more infuriated at the day's turn of events. Moments later, Lester finds a distraught Angela and is on the edge of consummating their relationship, but the seduction is derailed when she confesses that she is a virgin. Now viewing her only as an innocent child, Lester immediately withdraws, his affections shifting to that of a father-figure, and they bond over their shared frustrations with and concern for Jane, Lester seeming to be pleased when Angela confesses that Jane's in love. Angela asks how he's feeling and he realizes, to his own surprise, that he feels great. After Angela excuses herself to the bathroom, a happy Lester sits at the table looking at a photograph of his family in happier times, unaware of the gun being held to the back of his head.
In his final narration, Lester looks back on the events of his life, intertwined with images of everyone's reactions to the sound of the subsequential gunshot, including one of a bloody and shaken Col. Fitts with a gun missing from his collection. Despite his death, Lester, from his vantage point as narrator, is content:
"I guess I could be really pissed off about what happened to me...but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst...and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain. And I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday."
Many of the school scenes were shot at South High School in Torrance, California, and most of the extras in the gym crowd were South High students. Sam Mendes designed the two girls' appearances to change over the course of the film, with Thora Birch gradually using less makeup and Mena Suvari gradually using more, to emphasize their shifting perceptions of themselves.
Singer and dancer Paula Abdul choreographed the cheerleading scene.
During the movie's second dinner scene, Spacey was only supposed to throw the plate of asparagus onto the floor. However, while shooting, Spacey improvised and pitched it at the wall, bringing about genuine reactions of shock to Bening and Birch's faces.
Alan Ball's original screenplay had opening and ending scenes in which Col. Fitts frames Jane and Ricky for the murder of Lester. They go to jail, but Col. Fitts' wife finds his bloody shirt. After shooting these scenes, Sam Mendes removed many of them for the first cut, feeling that they made the film lose its mystery. Although Ball and Mendes initially disagreed, Ball accepted the new version after Mendes made further cuts to that part of the plot, which "worked on the page but not really on screen. In the DVD commentary, Mendes refers to deleted scenes for the viewer to find on the disc. However, these scenes are not on the DVD as he had changed his mind after recording the commentary.
The score was sampled in the 2000 dance track "American Dream" by Jakatta.
The movie premiered on September 8, 1999, in Los Angeles, California, to reviews that generally reaffirmed the advance hype, uniformly praising the cast, script, and cinematography, as well as the first-time direction by Mendes. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthman called it "a dazzling tale of loneliness, desire and the hollowness of conformity." Jay Carr for the Boston Globe called the film "a millennial classic"; the New York Post called it "a flat-out masterpiece." Among the smaller number of critics who expressed negative opinions of the film were J. Hoberman of the Village Voice and Wesley Morris of the San Francisco Examiner, both of whom were critical of the film's script and direction, if not its performances.
On September 11, it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice award just days before its opening. Aided tremendously by the positive press, the film took in $861,531 on its opening weekend in the United States, despite a limited release to only 16 screens. By October, the film was released to a wider audience, and quickly surpassed the film's estimated $15,000,000 production budget. After its total theatre count steadily dropped near the end of 1999 and the start of 2000, it was given a wider relaunch after it received several Academy Award nominations. Ultimately, the film would gross $356,296,601 internationally.
Scenes from the Los Angeles and Toronto premieres, as well as other unique footage related to American Beauty, are featured in the 2008 documentary My Big Break, directed by T.W. Zierra, which follows Wes Bentley before and after he landed his breakout role as Ricky Fitts.
Overall, the film was well-received by critics, with an 89% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes.