AMERICAN Beauty, which has been a huge hit in the United States, is about the collapse of the American Dream. The film revolves around the Burnhams, who are, by all appearances, the perfect family. They are attractive, well off and own a large, tasteful house in a small town. The parents' careers are well established.
But then the father, Lester, played by Kevin Spacey, falls in love with his daughter's beautiful friend and knocks everything off balance. Lester begins to realise how much he hates his job and how little his family care about each other. He doesn't even like himself much, and so he sets out to change his life. He quits his job, blackmails his boss to give him a huge redundancy package and gets a job at a burger bar instead.
His wife Carolyn, played by Annette Bening, is very much the 'Stepford wife' with a career. She has completely bought into the American dream. As the film progresses she struggles desperately to keep the family moving up the social ladder. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening put in superb performances. But the film is exceptional for other reasons as well. It exposes the contradictions of trying to live up to a 'perfect' American ideal.
Much of the film is a questioning of how we judge what is beautiful, and how we view ourselves and others. So the boy next door to the family spends his life behind a video camera trying to capture beauty. A beautiful cheerleader tries to look for a way out of normal existence. The greatest strength of the film is that the main characters are so well rounded.
The film shows a sense of longing for a different kind of existence. For Lester this partly means looking for a way off the consumer treadmill. As he eventually yells at his wife, 'This isn't life. This is just stuff!' Director Sam Mendes said that he spent weeks rehearsing with the actors and building up histories for the parts they play. I had the feeling that this film started out as a whimsical Hollywood comedy, but as the characters developed their own histories it turned into something much closer to the truth.
It is heartening that a film so damning of the American Dream won a recent Golden Globe film award and is lined up for the Oscars. It must have struck a chord with the audiences.