American Beauty, a story about Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), his family, and his neighbors, is both comic and tragic. In addition to a loveless marriage, an unhappy teen-age daughter, and an unimaginative, routine job, Lester is worried about aging. Nothing has turned out as expected. From the outside, all seems ideal: the white-framed house, the well-tended red roses, and the white picket fence. As illustrated by meal time settings, a highly-charged cold war atmosphere prevails inside the house. Lester and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a realtor, cannot stand each other and their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), has no desire to be with either of them.

From the onset, Lester’s narrating voice tells us that he will be dead in a year. He has no illusions about the repressive nature of his life and decides, unilaterally, that abrupt changes are in order. His scripted family role is cast aside as he quits his job, lusts after his daughter’s sexy friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), and smokes an illegal substance with Ricky (Wes Bentley), a teen-ager who has moved in next door.

Uncharacteristic of his customary, go-along behavior, the new, rebellious Lester throws a plate of asparagus against the wall during dinner, drinks beer while lounging on the expensive off-limits couch, works as a cook and waiter at a local fast food restaurant, and begins a body building program so as to impress and seduce Angela. Meanwhile, Carolyn has an affair with a competing realtor and Jane falls in love with Ricky.

Two gay men, who are thoughtful and kind, live on one side of the Burnhams; on the other side, Ricky lives with another version of disturbed parents: an abused and deeply depressed mother and a retired, Marine father (Chris Cooper) who bullies his son, is expressively homophobic, and collects guns and Nazi era memorabilia.

The lives of these characters, many of them familiar to viewers, gain in intensity as various threads cross to produce an unresolvable knot.


The movie is about looking again.

Do we really see what we think we’re seeing and should we be examining ourselves and our lives more carefully and closely? This theme is underscored by the use of windows for looking out and by Ricky’s voyeuristic habit of documenting people and events with his camera.

Before the dramatic ending, Lester sits at the table with a picture of his "ideal" family taken some years ago when, in fact, they looked as perfect as American Beauty roses. He loved his wife and child, had noble aspirations, and expected a different kind of life. Unfortunately, his life and Carolyn’s sped by without introspection, review, and revision. In spite of stacked circumstances, many moments in the funny and frightening story are uncomfortably familiar.

I assigned American Beauty to 100 first-year medical students. They were asked to consider the film as they thought about their current situation and goals, their vision for the future, and the possibility of twists and turns that might alter expectations.


This film won Academy Awards for Best Film and for Best Actor (Kevin Spacey).

Primary Source

DreamWorks: Home Entertainment