American Beauty is one of those annoying movies that purports to tell its audiences about All the Big Truths About Life, when actually there's not an honest bone in its body.
Take, for starters, the setting. The story is about a so-called "ordinary suburban family", where the husband (Kevin Spacey) is an underpaid magazine writer who hates his cubicle job and the wife (Annette Bening) is an ambitious but struggling real estate agent. Yet they live in a gigantic two-story house in what looks to be one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. If this is ordinary suburbia, I want in!
This is what critics of Hollywood are talking about when they say that studio filmmakers are out of touch with America. If this family lived in a 1960s ranch-style home or a 1990s cookie-cutter housing tract, I'd believe it. But the film plops them in a gorgeous mansion on a tree-lined street and expects us to believe that they're just getting by. I don't buy it.
Anyway, the wife is having an affair with an even smarmier realtor (Peter Gallagher), the husband is cracking up and falling for his daughter's seemingly slutty cheerleader pal (Mena Suvari), and meanwhile their bored teenage daughter (Thora Birch) starts getting involved with the strange boy next door (Wes Bentley), whose family has some secrets of their own.
We've all been down this road before: the seemingly perfect American family in the seemingly perfect suburbia, yet "all is not what it seems". Blah, blah, blah.
As the cast of American Beauty is first-rate, and first-time feature director Mendes does a reasonably capable (if mostly unremarkable) job, the film's most divisive element is Alan Ball's screenplay. Some, apparently, found it to be poetry. I found it to be gaseous nonsense. It's pretentious, didactic, misogynist (Bening's detestable character was reportedly based on Cybill Shepherd, whose sitcom Cybill was coproduced by Ball, and in this context his creation of Bening's character seems petty and vindictive), and ultimately simple-minded. We are told in the film's first moments, via Spacey's relentless voiceover, that he will soon die. Yet the scene that seals his tragic fate plays out like a Three's Company-style misunderstanding. I thought, really?
Even the story's structure is suspect: plenty of plot details suggest that a particular character is going to take the fall for this man's death – and indeed, reports are that the script's third act originally included a Law & Order-like investigation and trial that brought it all together in a rather cruel way. I suppose it's better that the film should close on an emotional moment and not on some sort of "ironic" payoff. But it's not enough to save the film from its self-congratulatory sentiment.
There's a lot of witty dialogue, Thomas Newman's score is wonderful, and Conrad Hall's cinematography is lustrous. But despite this professional sheen, American Beauty is one of the most overrated motion pictures of 1999.