American Beauty is based on an original screenplay by Alan Ball, who had previously done only television writing. Sam Mendes decided to direct the film after assembling an all-star cast and the result was a massive box office success. Although it was made with only fifteen million dollars, the film generated nearly half a billion dollars in revenue from rentals and the box office run.
When the film begins, we meet the Burnhams. They are a seemingly typical American family consisting of Lester, the father, Carolyn, the mother, and Jane, their daughter. However, this family is far from perfect. Lester is a deadbeat father who hates his job, Carolyn is a real estate agent who is facing tough competition, and Jane is still in high school, but hating it. The family is dysfunctional, to say the least, and everyone seems detached and unromantic.
Strangely, what we see at the beginning is indeed only the beginning. The family descends into total chaos as Jane gets a weird boyfriend, Lester is fired and starts working at a fast food joint, and Carolyn starts an affair with her competitor. To make things worse, Lester becomes infatuated with Jane's friend Angela Hayes, who seduces him.
The cast of this film is simply amazing. Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham so perfectly that it seems tailored for him. Carolyn is played by Annette Bening in one of her most important roles and Jane is played by Thora Birch, a young actress. Other important cast members include Chris Cooper as Colonel Frank Fitts, who lives next door, and Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts, the Colonel's son.
The entire film takes place in a small, wealthy, suburban area without a name. It looks like many of the suburbs that I have seen in person, where expensive houses hide the problems that exist inside of them. That said, you won't be seeing any fantastic scenery, but the film does not require such distractions.
The soundtrack has some original songs, mostly resembling those of 50s sitcoms. However, it also features some classic songs from the 1960s and 70s that are played during Lester's rebirth scenes. There are also some newer songs, such as one by Annie Lennox that is played towards the end.
What struck me the most about this film is how closely it reflects American society. Everything seems to be about image, rather than reality, and I have seen many families as dysfunctional as the Burnhams or even worse. I think the acting and illusions created by society is simply absurd, although necessary to a point.
Overall, I still regard this movie as one of my favorite films of all time. I particularly found meaning in Lester Burnham's self-liberation, although there are other important messages as well. If you haven't seen this movie yet, it is essential that you do so.