The film explores themes such as modern Western societies' focus on physical appearance and success, to the detriment of people truly getting to know each other on a deeper level. One of the more well-advertised plotlines was the infatuation of the main character with his daughter's schoolfriend.
The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is regarded as one of the finest multi-Oscar-winning films ever.
- Kevin Spacey - Lester Burnham
- Annette Bening - Carolyn Burnham
- Thora Birch - Jane Burnham
- Wes Bentley - Ricky Fitts
- Mena Suvari - Angela Hayes
- Peter Gallagher - Buddy Kane
- Allison Janney - Barbara Fitts
- Scott Bakula - Jim Olmeyer
- Sam Robards - Jim Berkley
- Chris Cooper - Colonel Frank Fitts
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the entire movie.
Lester Burnham (Spacey) is a 42-year-old man whose middle class, suburban doldrums far exceed the standard middle-age crisis. His fourteen-year career at a magazine is going nowhere, his perfectionist realtor wife, Carolyn (Bening), drives him crazy and his angst ridden teenager daughter, Jane (Birch) barely communicates with him, simply writing him off as "weird." This, at least in part, is due to Lester's prior lack of attention towards Jane.
Things soon begin to change around the Burnham household, however, upon the arrival of several new people who shake things up. While their neighbors on one side are a gay couple, Jim (Bakula) and Jim (Robards), the once vacant house on the other has now been occupied by the Fitts family. Colonel Frank Fitts (Cooper) is a stern, military man whose wife, Barbara (Janney), seems to be in state of domestic shell shock.
Little do they know that their eighteen-year-old son, Ricky (Bentley), a boy so obsessed with life and beauty that they once institutionalized him for two years, is actually a successful drug dealer with a penchant for videotaping everything, including Jane next door.
While that initially creeps her out, Jane soon starts to find Ricky interesting once she gets to know him. That only disgusts Jane's typically gorgeous and fellow cheerleader friend, Angela (Suvari), who thinks Ricky's a pervert and an oddity, although she herself claims she's slept with men just in an attempt to further her aspiring modeling career.
When Lester meets both Angela and Ricky, he finds a stirring within himself that he long thought dormant and perhaps dead. With Angela, who openly flirts with him, Lester goes into hormonal overdrive and constantly fantasizes about her, when not pumping iron to get into shape and make himself more attractive to her.
With Ricky, Lester finds a kindred spirit whose carefree attitude about life and work — as well as the expensive marijuana he sells him — causes Lester to change his outlook on life. Having successfully blackmailed his former company, Lester sets out to have a good time, not caring that his wife may be seeing local real estate king, Buddy Kane (Gallagher).
As everyone reacts to Lester's newfound attitude with shock, he must deal with the fact that Carolyn doesn't like his new self, that Jane half-jokingly asked Ricky to kill him, and that Colonel Fitts becomes suspicious of Lester's involvement with his son.
Films on similar themesEdit
The movie Fight Club explores similar themes of the American dream and challenging societal norms. The main character in Fight Club, like Lester Burnham, is displeased with his current lifestyle and begins participating in illicit or counter-cultural activities. He also blackmails his boss for a few years' pay. Both films end with a crucial destructive event that nevertheless leaves the viewer optimistic about the future.
In Vladimir Nabokov's well-known novel Lolita, a man by the name of Humbert lusts after a much, much younger girl; the same plot features in American Beauty. Two films have been made from the book, by Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne respectively. Lester Burnham is an anagram of "Humbert learns", a reference that is, in fact, deliberate. Furthermore, the family name of Nabokov's Lolita, Haze, is homophonous with Angela's last name, Hayes. Technically speaking, Angela Hayes is roughly four years too old to be a nymphet in the way Nabokov's novel defines; however, she meets the definition of "nymphet" in more widespread usage.
Another literary work with thematic similarities to the film is the play Death of a Salesman, which similarly deals with themes of alienation and the American Dream. Furthermore, early in the movie, Carolyn mentions that the "Lomans" (the name of the central family in "Death of a Salesman") have recently moved from the house next door. In fact, the film was described as "a modern-day 'Death of a Salesman'" by members of the production.
Academy Awards Edit
- Best Picture (Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks)
- Best Actor (Kevin Spacey)
- Directing (Sam Mendes)
- Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Alan Ball)
- Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall)