Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a guy with a wife (Annette Bening as Carolyn) and a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, who has seemingly grown up overnight). His marriage is basically over, he never really speaks to his daughter and he's close to being fired from his job. But one night, while attempting to save his relationship with his daughter by watching her cheerlead at a basketball game, he has a vision. And his vision is Jane's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari of American Pie fame). Suddenly to Lester, everything makes sense. This young girl takes over his life and his emotions. Sadly, his affections for the young girl is noticed by both her and his daughter, which makes his daughter hate him even more. At the same time that Jane is dealing with this problem of not being able to deal with her father, a mysterious stranger moves in next door (Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts). Ricky videotapes everything, including Jane. Jane is drawn to Ricky, but can't understand why. Ricky has his own problems with his racist, homophobic former Marine father (Chris Cooper) who drug tests Ricky every six months. Of course Ricky is a drug dealer so he has to figure out ways around these drug tests. Carolyn has her own problems. She's a real estate agent who constantly loses ground to the "King" of real estate, Buddy Kane (Pete Gallagher). She realizes her marriage is failing and ends up learning a lot from the "King". All these stories interact with each other, until they all finally come together in an explosive finale.
There is a lot going on in American Beauty. All these different story lines, and the good thing is, all of them are interesting. In a lot of movies, when the writer and/or director try to weave in different story lines, some of them become muddled and uninteresting. Here, all of them flow very well, and manage to intersect at times, making them that much more interesting. The movie is very well paced, with almost no scenes that slow down the film. And the acting was by far the highlight of the film. Kevin Spacey proves yet again why he is one of the premiere actors of our time. Annette Bening was wonderful in her hysteria. And I also thought Mena Suvari and Thora Birch held their own against these two powerhouses. And of course Chris Cooper as the racist homophobe did a great job of using anger to hide his true feelings until they all came rushing out in a downpour. Newcomer Wes Bentley also did a fine job as a son who had one life on the outside, and a subservient life when dealing with his father.
American Beauty is truly a character driven story, and all these characters had their own stories that I found fascinating. Lester had what would appear to most to be a pretty good life. But deep down inside he knew he didn't, and just wanted to be free and young again. Hitting on a teenage girl, quiting his job, buying a new car, working out, doing whatever he could to reclaim his youth. Carolyn had her own problems. Too tied in to being the best real estate agent possible, she never saw what was happening with her marriage and her daughter before it was too late. Jane, dealing with her best friend being the beautiful one, not having parents around to help her out, feeling ordinary. Angela, being the beautiful one, but having to tell stories to people to keep up her image, just so she wouldn't be ordinary. Ricky, dealing drugs to make money, but having a racist father who had his own insecurities. Every story had many levels, and every actor managed to dig deep into those levels to come out with a great performance.
Overall, American Beauty lives up to the hype as one of the best movies of the year. This is the definition of dark comedy. I would highly recommend going to see it, if you haven't already.