There are classics like The Godfather (or Godfather 2). "Dad, that was awesome but why did Sonny get out of the car?" There are great films that age horribly like Philadelphia. "Dad, people went to see a film about a gay guy who died from AIDS and was discriminated against?" I like to think about the movies I will want to show or recommend to my kids as classics. Where does American Beauty fall on the spectrum? A classic? You probably liked it, as it did well in theaters and received awards. It's Wikipedia page is lengthy with citations of the academic analysis of it. Have those academics or reviewers watched it recently? Time has not been kind to the movie. American Beauty is a clinic for acting but is not a classic.
Beauty was released September 8th, 1999 to critical praise and enjoyed commercial success. In Beauty, Lester Burnham has a midlife crisis or awakening, his wife cheats on him, his daughter falls in love, he blackmails his employer, retreats emotionally to his teen years even getting his teen job and teen dream car, he nearly sleeps with his daughter's hot friend and then is shot by his next door retired Marine neighbor who had kissed him minutes earlier. Watch the film, and if possible, watch it with the director and writer commentary on for a followup.
The film is beautifully shot with a score that was ripped off in other film previews and commercials. remember that stretch of time when every other commercial had a xylophone. The script is clichéd, bitter, cynical and shallow. There is little joy to it. It is not a "the suburbs might have somethong dark present" film like Blue Velvet. It is a "suburbs are full of perverts" product that Hollywood cranks out annually. The kid who went to the institution is the deep, balanced one. The hot girl is a catty liar. The Marine is a gung-ho macho guy. The only normal-ish people are the two gay guys who welcome in the new Marine family and give fitness advice to Lester. It was written by a *gasp* gay man. The stereotypes make sense now.
The thing that carries the film is the acting. Spacey fully fleshes out the normal dad who is mad he wasn't a rock star or even the star in his family. This is a role that he first tried out in The Ref. He is tremendous embodying the devoted family man who is marginalzed by his wife and considered lame and an annoyance by his daughter. Listen to her criticism of her father in contrast to his behavior in front of her cute friend; it's a gross exaggeration. His cubicle drone, wearing a mask, is wonderful with deliveries like "for you Brad, I got five". Look at his dead eyes as he states what should be a cheery line. Everyone works with one guy like this. The "divorce" threat serve and volley is great as it is an argument the growing number of breadwinner women may soon face. What happens when a man has nothing to lose... and possibly something to gain? Spacey's Burnham references the nothing to lose idea multiple times in the movie. He is actually declaring his wife, his job and family have no value. They don't need or want him, so screw it. The other side to it is a man told when younger he'd reach a certain spot, and it would be a dream life, only to wake up and recognize the nightmare that it is. Did Boomers cry in the theater when they watched this?
As for women, Annette Benning should have won an Oscar for her role as materialistic and obsessed with the perfect image mom Carolyn Burnham. She's gardening in perfect clothing before work and looking peak-MILF. She'd love social media to show everyone the perfect life she wanted others to think she had. She even has the perfect empty, moneymaking job: realtor. The sequence of pre-sale ritual ("I will sell this house today"), bad showings and then face slapping meltdown pulled me in because it was not just Lester's biased narration saying she is a bitch. She revealed she was a bit loony. Nowadays, she'd be a pill popper. Here she pulled it together, no drinking, no drugs, just her. Benning was playing the true product of our competitive economic with feminism. How many moms did you know like this? Not many, but probably one or two. Benning brought that mom to the big screen. Looking back on it, was Benning just playing Martha Stewart? She lost the Oscar to Hillary Swank's performance in Boys Don't Cry as the girl who posed as a guy to get girls, facing intolerance from hicks (wow, Wikipedia's entry is trans-ed out). In other words, Benning stood no chance.
Other actors perform their roles well. Chris Cooper, a fantastic supporting actor in many flicks, plays a cookie cutter Marine. The boy next door filming everything feels totally forced now but the injection of the digital cam footage was already okay for audiences that just saw The Blair Witch Project. In 2014, we would expect young women to pose for his camera and everyone else to yell at him to shut it off. In hall of fame bad casting, the daughter with D cups wanted to save up for breast implants. Who cast her? The actress had porn star parents (seriously), so you can search and see where she got her talents. The rest are stock, cliche characters but complete a strong ensemble. The catty hot chick still has moments where she sounds like a little girl (how did Mena Suvari's career die?). The medicated, imprisoned mom (an unrecognizable Alison Janney). The married, real estate king (Peter Gallagher and his eyebrows) who makes Benning take the hypergamous jump into bed.
To date myself, I first saw the film after downloading it off Scour Media Exchange. It was a bootleg that stopped right when Spacey gets shot. We then HAD to download another version. We waited an hour to download it, and in that hour guessed who did it. A friend thought Jane (overhearing or seeing her friend with her dad), another the Marine neighbor. I predicted wife Carolyn as so much pointed to her. Was not their tension the chief conflict of the movie? Neither was happy with their perfectly cultivated family. Deep down, at the actor level, while the story is about Lester's journey, Benning stands out so strongly that she can make the film hers. Had I known the screenwriter was gay, I would've changed my answer because ding ding ding it's the antigay Marine, that just beat his kid on suspicions of homo-activity and kissed Spacey. Ah yes, every red state male is a closet case but also hates gays.
Does anyone learn anything? Sure, Lester doesn't sleep with his daughter's friend but when she asks him how he feels, he doesn't just answer but he stops to complain about no one asking him that in a long time. He still needs to bitch to a near stranger about his family. His post-death acceptance of life feels phony even with that. His wife? She hugs his clothes after seeing him shot. Hugs his clothes. Jane was running away with a teenage drug dealer that spent time in an institution because "love". The real secret: these jerks all have great lives that they could enjoy yet life is empty. Material success is not enough. Their situation as upper-middle class is a great baseline for life yet it is not enough. Married to a nice family man with a job or a sexy wife is not enough. Life is oh so bad for these unlikeable shits (okay, Lester is likeable). There is no lesson, which hurts the movie. There is no emotional core. It is hollow.
Beauty swept through the Academy Awards, but it is not a classic in a year with memorable movies. The Matrix is the classic "what is real" genre that was everywhere for a period. I have written already about American Piece and Blair Witch influencing their genres and film in general as well as marking film and cultural turns. Fight Club is more of a classic than Beauty and has aged better; this is despite containing many similarities to Beauty. Is the movie rewatchable? Yes, to see Spacey and Benning at top form. Is it dated? Yes. Ball came up with the script in '92 probably looking to smear '80s Reaganite America. By release in '99, this felt real or believable but with each year it looks more cartoonish. The movie will continue to age poorly as it has done so far just fifteen years later. It won't stop people cruising channels. It's not a "hey American Beauty is on" type of movie. Not many are like that, but that is why this is not a classic. Yet, it is still a great watch that has some beautiful shots and great performances. If the right scene is on and Benning and Spacey are trading barbs, you should stop just to see two skilled craftsmen rising to best one another and make it their film.