The Church of the SubGenius has a motto for breaking away from the chains of conformity: "Repent! Quit your job! Slack off!" And that's essentially what American Beauty is about: waking up and realizing what a sham modern life is, before it's too late. But there are powerful forces at work forces determined to keep us subservient and asleep; if you're not careful, you'll invoke the wrath of these all-powerful gods and they'll destroy you. So it is with films of this sort: when the protagonist (you can't call him a "hero") wakes up and begins enjoying life to its fullest, he is soon destroyed by the inability of his companions, co-workers, and family to allow him the freedom to rebel. In other words: If you dare to break away and be yourself, you're screwed.
American Beauty follows the path tread by other movies of this sort, from David Lynch's Blue Velvet to Linklater's Slacker, or Breaking Away, or even Robocop. The setting of a peaceful, perfect-looking suburban town suggests echoes of Lynch, but rather than following Blue Velvet's idea that "it's a strange world" lying beneath the surface of picket fences and bright colors (the opening scenes of this movie include a white picket fence and dazzling red roses, reminiscent of Lynch's creation), this movie dares to suggest that you can become *part* of the weirdness -- and if you do, then you'll realize once again that life can be fun and exciting.
Kevin Spacey is Lester Burnham, the man who repents, quits his job, and slacks off. He describes himself as a pethetic loser, but in fact everyone in his world is so screwed up by their attempts to be successful and "normal" that he's the only one who bothers to acknowledge it. And when he gets a glimpse of his daughter's best friend (a luscious 17-year-old cheerleader), he reacts in a manner that any grown-up man would when he spies a girl of that sort. But he's so beaten down and numbed by his screwed-up "grown-up" life that the sudden feeling of emotion takes him by surprise, overwhelming him and causing him to wake up at last. For a 42-year-old man to be lusting after a teenage girl is the epitome of depravity...but Lester isn't really the dirty, sleazy child molester that some critics of this movie have labelled him. He's reaching back to the time when he was 20 years old, free of responsibility, listening to rock music and smoking pot, and lusting after teenage girls when he was at the age to do so. Lester was probably so much of an outcast that at 20, he didn't have the courage to approach the object of his fantasy. And because his soul has been chained to a rock of conformity and obedieance, he isn't able to wake up and achieve his goals until now.
But *they* don't like that: how can this man actually expect to rebel against authority and conformity, and even manage to be HAPPY?!? Lester may have been screwed up, but what none of the other characters in his world want to admit is that they're even worse off than he is. One of this movie's strengths is the way that while we're given a lot of biting, vicious laughs at the expense of Lester's wife, we also see that she's terrified of the world -- so much so that we pity her, and we can honestly understand her feelings during the movie's climax, as she drives home to confront her husband for one last time.
And Lester's daughter -- played by Thora Birch, with a hairstyle and makeup resembling Christina Ricci -- is so ashamed of her screwed-up parents (and herself, for being raised in an environment like this) that she saves money for a breast implant she doesn't really need and listens to her best friend bragging about her sexual conquests. So when the son of her next-door neighbor comes into her life, offering her an alternative from the asphyxiating "normality" of her everyday surroundings, she jumps at the chance and bares herself (literally) to him. In fact, it's the neighbor's kid -- the one who gives Lester his first joint and encourages him to rebel against society -- who's happiest in this movie. (The fact that his character spent two years in a mental instution probably contributes to this: the world of American Beauty is so insane that the institution was enough of an escape to allow him to come to terms with himself.)
The characters are what make this such a fascinating and entertaining movie: they're out of control, every single one -- and yet we have no problem seeing a little bit of ourselves there, right on the screen. Am I as hopeless and pathetic as Lester, scurrying to my job every day and taking abuse from my boss? Is my life destined to become as empty and shapeless as his? Or is it still possible for me to Repent, Quit my job, and Slack Off?
The story has a few awkward moments, mostly during the scenes that shape the ongoing plot and make it seem a bit too contrived at times -- especially during the scene where Lester's next-door neighbor spies him "seducing" his son, and later going to his home to confront him. But the movie is still off-kilter enough to keep us guessing to the very end...and while the ultimate resolution of the movie isn't quite as satisfying as it could be, it still doesn't feel like a cop-out.
But in spite of alll this blathering, I haven't really been able to show you what a wicked black comedy American Beauty is. It's one of the few Hollywood movies to come out that dares to go for the jugular, shoving a mirror into our faces and making us laugh at what a mockery our lives are. If the world of real life wasn't as screwed up as it is, then we might not need a movie like this. But, unfortunately, we do.