I've seen seven Best Picture winners in theatres before they actually won, but this is the one that was at a point where I was starting pay attention to movies yet still didn't care, worry or know enough about the politics of them to wonder or debate whether they might become Best Picture winners. I just thought it was a movie and my family was going to see it, and I knew my artsier friends were enjoying it, but that was about all. My sister was a big fan of Kevin Spacey, for his earlier work. Like many, it sort of curbed her interest a bit by placing him in a starring role. That never particularly bothered me, never felt he was overexposed, but occasionally thought he might be doing a bit like De Niro and taking on some less than necessary (or even uninteresting) films after this. One wonders why actors seem to do this AFTER big works–shouldn't they have just gotten some bills paid? Still, that's a sidenote to the film itself.
The Burnhams are a pretty strictly familiar suburban upper-middle class (maybe upper-upper) family, Lester (Spacey) entering a mid-life crisis, Carolyn (Annette Bening) failing to cope with this or her own crisis, and mildly rebellious daughter Jane (Thora Birch) revelling in the role of 'outsider' in school, while hoping just a bit to find some companionship outside of it, or even within it. Her closest friend is, somewhat mysteriously, the promiscuous fellow cheerleader Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Moving in next door are the Fitts, Colonel Frank, USMC (Chris Cooper), Barbara (Allison Janey) and Ricky (Wes Bentley). Jane's first run-in is with Ricky, who she finds videotaping her form his porch, openly, shamelessly, but without any note of threat. Ricky himself is estranged from his family, his mother lost in her own mind and his father fighting to control his son, who has been involved in drugs and, his father suspects anyway, homosexuality. Lester tries to burn through his own life, his worthless job and his failed marriage, while trying to engage in the fantasy of seducing his daughter's friend Angela. Carolyn attempts to escape by bonding with her real estate competitor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Jane attempts to deal with her collapsing parents while being drawn to the danger and mystery of Ricky.
There's a note, as many films suffer after receiving acclaim, of sour grapes from many people regarding this film–or at least a feeling of contrarian opposition to its acclaim and awards. "Overrated" is thrown at it pretty regularly, with a sneer and typically an accompanying sense of accomplished superiority. Of course, one cannot become superior by anything simply by saying it isn't as good as OTHER people think, or simply that it "sucks." Interestingly the film this reminds me of most (albeit backward considering the timeline along which I saw them) is Ordinary People, which is amusingly appropriate both because it is reviled as winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1980 (mostly because it beat out Raging Bull) and because apparently American Beauty's first-time director Sam Mendes looked back at that very film for inspiration. Both deal with a level of socioeconomic living that many of us do not experience–somewhat above our own without falling into the absurdly incomprehensible fantasy of the ultra-rich–and the problems that plague the people in it, which differ somewhat little from those the rest of us know.
Once, while watching Donnie Darko, I experienced a rather common reaction to films like this: "But they have money, they can't have problems!" someone exclaimed at that one. I was struck by the absolute absurdity of this idea, but was left pondering the difference. Certainly if we start looking comparatively, any of us (especially anyone who can read a movie review posted only on the internet, or able to read one at all for that matter) can find someone in a worse position than ourselves. Problems are not intrinsically valued or valueless, as dealing with them on a universal scale is inherently absurd. There's no way to suggest that Lester's dissatisfaction with the dishonest approach of everyone in his life is unimportant, because it is important to Lester. Few–if any–can will away problems that are emotionally affecting, and so they become important at least in the context of the person having them and those around him or her. There's a smart approach to this in American Beauty, as there is in the entirety of Alan Ball's approach to the script: characters are all born from existing stereotypes, but all twist and contort them without being flagrant contradictions or sardonic inversions. A dis-satisfied suburban father in a useless job becomes a man seeking youth earnestly and in unusual ways, some expected, some not, and finding it in a place he, himself, would never have suspected. A shrew-like mother who holds her problems over her family but secretly holds this shield of frustration over deep insecurities and depression, who is trying to re-assemble her life and reclaim her role as mother but simply doesn't understand it because she has no concept of herself. An outsider daughter who fits naturally into the role of cheerleader–somehow!–and yet lacks promiscuity, all while secretly planning breast augmentation to attract more male attention, and boost her own self esteem.
The film is not an amazing revelation in thematic terms, though it does have an appropriately post-modern outlook on these same themes and ideas. It has a hint of the dark and a twist of the sarcastic without being overly "hip" or pretentious (though those who are happily embraced it on release). Mendes' direction and the fantasies hiding in the film, specifically Lester's fantasies about Angela, are fascinatingly creative, neither arthouse abstraction nor clumsily obvious symbolism. Thomas Newman's accompanying score for these scenes is fantastically mischievous, recognizing the problematic nature of them, but reminding the audience that this is only fantasy–though not some members, who still oversimplify the film to decry it as being about a "sick, deranged pedophile." His score is hauntingly bittersweet, plucking the right aching heartstrings when witnessing things from the outside, as Ricky often does through the lens of his camera when watching his neighbors interact. The moment where he tapes a silent conversation between Lester and Jane through their kitchen window to only Newman's sweet, sad music captures perfectly the dichotomy between the intense emotional response of the Burnhams themselves and the invisibility of those problems to anyone from the outside who isn't paying attention as most don't.
This is not an overrated film, really. Those who suggest as much either have very specific tastes (which is fine!) or are simply trying to prove their worth by degrading something recognized somewhat widely as being a quality release (which is not so fine). Alan Ball easily proved this was no fluke by going on to make Six Feet Under, while Mendes went on to direct solidly visual and engaging films like Jarhead.