“American Beauty” is one of those movies you don’t have to worry about spoiling the end because the narrator himself (Kevin Spacey) gives it away early on. In just less than a year, he’ll be dead. Then there’s a clip of his daughter being filmed in which she wishes that someone would put her father out of his misery. The camera holder asks (apparently seriously) if she wants him to kill him for her. But, this is not as straightforward as it seems.
We open on a seemingly idyllic suburb in which Kevin’s wife, (Annette Bening) goes out to tend her roses (symbolism alert) wearing clogs that match her garden shears. When a neighbor asks her what her secret is, she chirps,”Eggshells and Miracle-Gro!” This is one of the few things that is not a secret in her family. Oddly enough, the perfect exterior masks a very messed up interior – for just about all the characters.
We also meet the affable gay couple next door (at least Annette, for all her faults, isn’t homophobic), and Kevin’s and Annette’s morose adolescent daughter (Thora Birch), about whom Kevin observes that he wants to tell her that things get better, but he doesn’t want to lie to her. And indeed, he seems to be stuck in a rut, rather than enjoying his pleasant lifestyle. We first see him masturbating in the shower before work, while he voiceovers, “Both my wife and my daughter think I’m this gigantic loser. And they’re right.” But then he notes that even if he’s lost something, “it’s never too late to get it back.” Indeed when Kevin hears that his job may be on the line – that provides the nudge that will send a chain of dominoes toppling, as everything about his orderly life is upended. Naturally, Annette, whose chipper manner as a Realtor, masks increasing desperation that she may fail, and Thora, who believes she is unattractive (no thanks to mom), especially compared to her model girlfriend, (Mena Suvari), will be casualties.
Providing another catalyst is the arrival of a new family in the neighborhood: a homophobic colonel (Chris Cooper). a lobotomized housewife (Allison Janney) and their only son, (Wes Bentley) who’s recently returned from military school, or perhaps it’s a mental institution. Unbeknownst to Chris, Wes is still dealing drugs, but he’s developed several canny ways to disguise this. Kevin first meets Wes at a party, when Wes offers him the chance to get high – and then quits his bus boy job, prompting Kevin to reevaluate whether he wants to stay at his own job. Wes is fond of hanging around on the margins of things with a video camera, something that Thora at first finds creepy but then begins a relationship with him.
In another scene, Kevin, dragged along to his daughter’s cheerleading/dance performance, notices Mena and begins to fantasize about her, something that repulses Thora but kind of intrigues Mena. Now jolted out of his inertia, Kevin begins smoking pot and working out, among other things. His wife, deeply unpleased at the new Kevin, seeks solace elsewhere – but that doesn’t wind up having the effect on Kevin that you’d expect. Kevin does indeed die on schedule, but he’s finally living the life of a fulfilled human being, not an automaton. Except for perhaps Allison’s character, everyone has wound up learning a thing or two – although how this will help them through the aftermath is left to the imagination.