Movie Review

American Beauty

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content.

Reviewed by: Ken James
STAFF WRITER

Extremely Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
Drama
Length:
2 hr. 2 min.
Year of Release:
1999
USA Release:
September 15, 1999
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Relevant Issues
Copyright, DreamWorks Distribution

Lust in the Bible

Lascivious

Murder

Death

Final judgment

Depression

Are there biblical examples of depression and how to deal with it? Answer

What should a Christian do if overwhelmed with depression? Answer

Love

TRUE LOVE—What is true love and how do you know when you have found it? Answer

Unhappy and dysfunctional marriage

Adultery

Lying

Truth

Marriage in the Bible

Is formalized marriage becoming obsolete? Answer
Many people are convinced that traditional marriages don’t work and that this practice should be abandoned. What does the Bible say about marriage?

Sex, Love & Relationships
Learn how to make your love the best it can be. Discover biblical answers to questions about sex, marriage, sexual addictions, and more.

Premarital sex

Fornication in the Bible

Should I save sex for marriage? Answer

My boyfriend wants to have sex. I don’t want to lose him. What should I do? Answer

How can I deal with temptations? Answer

How far is too far? What are the guidelines for dating relationships? Answer

What are the consequences of sexual immorality? Answer

I just found out I’m pregnant and I’m not married. What should I do?

Abortion / Pro-life topic index

Personal stories from women dealing with unplanned pregnancies, abortion, medical complications during pregnancy, and more…

Homosexuality

GAY—What’s wrong with being gay? Answer
Homosexual behavior versus the Bible: Are people born gay? Does homosexuality harm anyone? Is it anyone’s business? Are homosexual and heterosexual relationships equally valid?

What about gays needs to change? Answer
It may not be what you think.

Read stories about those who have struggled with homosexuality

Featuring: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Chris Cooper (Col. Frank Fitts, USMC), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts), Scott Bakula (Jim Olmeyer), Sam Robards (Jim Berkley), more »
Director: Sam Mendes
Producer: DreamWorks SKG, Jinks/Cohen Company, Alan Ball, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Stan Wlodkowski
Distributor: DreamWorks Distribution

“American Beauty” is the winner of several Oscars® from 1999. Critics worldwide have praised this film for its technical expertise and great storytelling. From the acting to script to musical score to message, it is true that there is much to appreciate technically, but “American Beauty” cannot be recommended due to its graphically offensive content.

Meet Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle aged man appearing on the outside to live a normal American suburban life. But as we hear in his voice overs and learn as the story progresses, his life is far from normal. He starts his day with masturbation in the shower, giving us the impression that perhaps things are not normal in his marital relationship. (The scene is clouded by the shower door). We see his real-estate-agent wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) in an over-the-fence friendly chat with the neighbors, two gentlemen who happen to be homosexual live-in partners. Again, not normal. And while Lester, Carolyn and only-child Jane (Thora Birch) live in the same home, there is really no relationship between any of them.

Lester and Carolyn attend a high school game where Jane is on the cheerleading squad. That’s where it happens: Lester becomes transfixed with Jane’s cheerleading girlfriend Angela (Mena Suvari). Here begins his fantasies that lead to major life changes: quitting his job, blackmailing his boss, working out, buying a new muscle car, taking drugs, and learning from a new high schooler neighbor how to tell people off and stand up for oneself. While it is commendable that Lester is trying to make some life changes and awaken from the deadness of his life, it is at the further alienation of his wife and daughter. Of course, Caryolyn isn’t too focused on Lester right now since she begins a short-lived sexual affair with a business competitor (played by Peter Gallagher). As for Lester’s daughter, she is sickened by her father’s infatuation with her friend but becomes so absorbed in her odd relationship with the new next door neighbor whom she uses to further try to pull herself out of the shell she knows as life.

“American Beauty” contains profanity, violence, drug use, sexual situations (including homosexuality, situations between a teen girl and middle aged man, and more), nudity (male backside, plus two topless scenes), and other offensive material.

This is not a happy movie; disturbing would be a better description. As a follower of Christ, I can’t help but look at this family, and especially at Lester, as someone desperately searching for meaning in life. That meaning is found through Jesus Christ, who sets us free from the bondage of sin and death. As King Solomon points out in Ecclesiastes so clearly, all other worldly pursuits are merely a “chasing after the wind.” While “American Beauty” is technically exceptional, its offensive material outweighs any redeeming values.

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.


Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Negative—Most of the positive comments for this movie come from those who have not lived through the age of the protagonist’s life. Most ADULTS who have or have not experienced mid-life crisis like the main character know that mistakes can be made. If anything can be taken from this movie it should be that if God is not in your life (in a personal way, not just Church), this story could become yours.

The promotion of homosexuality was a bit over-the-top and manipulative, as they were the only “couple” in the movie that appeared to have a good life. The Marine neighbor was just ridiculous in that he was really just a repressed homosexual, his wife was also over-the-top in her repressed conservative wife role.

There is a message in this movie but it is so drowned out by the director’s own personal prejudices of anti-suburban life, homosexual promotion and phony military identities that it tends to get lost. This is not a movie that you will come home and say, “wow, I feel inspired!”. It’s more of a Hollywood hit-job on middle America.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 1½
—Ryan Mcdaniel, age 39 (USA)
“an incredible core”… While many audience members will never be able to see past the film’s content, there is an incredible core to the film’s message—though it isn’t found until the film’s final scenes and, even then, the director doesn’t beat you over the head with it. He trusts that his audience is smart enough to understand. He trusts that his audience knows that the film isn’t approving of lustful infatuation Lester feels for Angela. He trusts that his audience isn’t going to approve of the immorality that is very prevalent in these characters’ lives. He trusts that his audience is going to see the answer to the question he puts forth in the film’s opening. How can we move past the emotional deadness of our lives and restore the joy we once had? By learning to stop living a “me” centered life and start living a life of care and concern for others. The characters in this film are searching so hard for beauty and love and meaning in their lives, and all they seem to find is emptiness…
—Josh Hornbeck
“excellent”… I thought this was an excellent movie for the following reasons: it shows how easily our lives are diverted from what is true, good and pure when our lives are not Christ-centered—no matter what our intentions may be. How easily we are diverted from marriage, fidelity, family, faith when we, in our lives, become fixated on the worldly: work, drugs, envy of others, illicit sex, living in non-reality based fantasy worlds. I think it showed the breakdown of the American family in a really essential way—the father went haywire and all else followed him. It was a slow but increasingly painful decline until it fell apart completely; he had no respect from his wife or daughter; his wife was immersed in her job and the acquisition of things; his daughter was in a relationship that was Oedipal, ie., searching for a man she could respect and settling on a very lost young man who was up to his ears in trouble. I think the best line and the best scene in the movie says it all: when Kevin Spacey is working for the burger restaurant and his wife drives up with her new lover, a competitor whom she is consumed with envy over—the shift manager says something to the effect, “Wow, you are like totally busted.” Because without Christ in our lives, we are totally busted too, completely and totally accountable for all that we have done. Since only through Christ do we have redemption, this movie is about people who are lost, completely lost. My Ratings: [3/5]
—Susan Norman, age 45
tells the truth… Everyone who is offended by this movie obviously didn’t get the point. This is a movie which told the truth about what’s going on all over America… from Kevin Spacey’s character, who got tired of going along with the “American Dream” game, and Annette Bening’s neo-Stepford wife character who just didn’t have a clue. Jesus challenges us with the question “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?” “American Beauty” is an excellent display of the answer. This movie didn’t make me offended… it made me want to minister to the many couples and their children-Christian and non-Christian-who are living the same lie that this movie showed! It should make you, my fellow saints, want to do the same!
—Chris Utley, age 27
“a gripping, yet flawed tale”… What a disappointment. A film that had so much potential to allow people to explore the dark aspects of sin, instead have anti-Christian, anti-conservative claptrap spoon fed to them in a gripping, yet flawed tale. I’m pretty open to films having Christian messages at their core, surrounded by things and themes and ideas which definitely do NOT belong in the family hour (see my comments on “Eyes Wide Shut”). However, this film had no redeeming qualities other than good storytelling and decent acting on both Kevin Spacey’s and Annette Bening’s parts. My Ratings: [1/3½]
—Scott Ward, age 27
“Garbage!”…and I am not now nor ever have been a prude. I walked out after about 25 minutes. You know, it fascinated me to read the other positive comments about this movie… especially given the nudity and the star obviously masturbating in the shower… The positive comments… about this movie say a great deal about the moral condition of so many of us. Read a good book… MAN IN THE MIRROR… and note how we, morally and philosophically, get boiled alive in a world of sinking morality; it happens gradually. My Ratings: [1½/3]
—Tim Demko, age 50
“gut-wretchingly disgusting”… It saddens me to see how many people here have tolerated and condoned the sickenly obvious and disgusting material and plot of this movie! It was gut-wretchingly disgusting I went with a non-Christian friend of mine who claims to be an atheist, who was MUCH more offended by the content and plot of this movie than most any of these other people who’ve posted reviews here! You guys! WAKE UP! This movie was horrible! It was tainted by quality movie making and tangible emotion—that is why people feel connected to this movie—they feel sympathy for the character’s whose lives were so awful. Think of the obscene profanity, the drug-dealing, the homosexuality, the adultery, the explicit nude and sex scenes… My friend and I left the theatre (at the end, when we should have walked out after the first 15 minutes!) feeling as if we were going to throw up!…
—Joy Spencer, age 15
a film to be learned from… The point of this movie was clearly lost on most of the audience. When understood it is an amazing film. Amazing because it is true. This movie portrayed life in the suburbs as it really is… depraved and lost. See it with an open mind and learn. My Ratings: [2/5]
—Joel Whitley, age 20
“great, sad, true”… It’s ironic that the title of this film is “American Beauty” when in reality it should be called “American Tragedy.” But I gather that the writers were trying to make a point. Great film. Sad film. True film. Great example of what families should not be but unfortunately too many are. I agree with the reviewer that you need to dig a little bit under the skin to really understand what this movie is trying to say. It was a movie rich in characters. They were very real and very well acted. It is a movie that hopefully would serve as a wakeup call to families to take a closer look at themselves. I see this film being a definite Oscar contender in many categories.
—Don Lambirth, age 31
“anti-Christian”… I knew that this movie would contain some inappropriate content, but opted to take a chance anyway since it was being praised as a brilliant social commentary. Baloney. It’s debased and utterly anti-Christian. If you want social commentary, watch the reaction of the audience you’re sitting with to the mind-blowing profanity and perverse mores that drive this film. After enduring two hours of propaganda (dealing drugs is hip if you’re casual about it and wise with the profits, those opposed to homosexuality are violent morons and, of course, repressed homosexuals themselves, those who get involved with firearms will, of course, use them on people), profanity (plenty of which is offered up by teenagers, and is numbingly explicit), contempt for family and marriage, scenes of masturbation, and more than I have room to mention, the filmmaker offers up less useful morality than you can find in any thirty minute episode of Happy Days. “Couches aren’t as important as relationships.” Wow. That’s deep. Would you applaud a middle-aged man for pulling the pants off of a sixteen year old girl, but changing his mind at the last minute? Maybe you’ll be able to empathize with the cartoonish characters in this rotten film. Incidentally, one of the topless scenes in the film features a real life minor. Nice. I would have gotten up and left this movie a dozen times if I hadn’t been so dumb struck by the glee with which the audience devoured the most perverse material. The review was entirely too sympathetic to the director’s intentions. He wasn’t relying on the audience’s intelligence, he was relying on their willingness to leave God outside the theatre and indulge their worst inclinations.
—Steve Paris, age 31
does not glorify sin… As was said above this film reminds one strongly of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes. Though this the film does not glorify Lester’s or any other character’s behavior any more than the Bible glorifies David’s adultery with Bathsheba or of the accused adulteress brought before Christ. Lester wakes up from his meaningless life and attempts to fill this void with everything from physical fitness to lust and drug abuse. None of these work. Where should he turn?

The filmmaker’s answer lies in the words of the prophetic Ricky and in the final scenes of the film. Ricky through his use of the video camera has been shown by “a greater benevolent power” that there IS beauty in the world, a fact that is not often broadcast on the nightly news. No, this is not a family film. This is a movie to be seen by adults who are willing to think and actively discuss the worldview that is presented therein, a worldview that is remarkably similar to a Christian’s. more »
—Stephen Swanson, age 20
It would be easy to complain about the unsavory aspects of this movie, they are legion. But that’s the point, isn’t it? “AB” is an extraordinarily well-told story which presents some truly important questions. However, the filmmakers avoid the role of propagandist by not attempting to provide the answers. Until Christian artists acquire half the skills and talent it took to tell this story, we have no right to complain.
—Douglas A. Sirman, age 34
2 stars… Unfortunately for Sam Mendes and his virgin effort in big screen film direction, great cinematography and thematic elements can’t carry a movie… coarse and exaggerated characterizations heaped on top of an anticlimactic story so weigh down this dog, that alas, on a 5-star scale, I can give no better than 2 stars. For some reason that escapes me, a fair-sized contingent of my fellow critics are offering high praise on this dark comedy(?), while others of us just shake our heads. And despite rumors to the contrary, neither Kevin Spacey’s nor Annette Bening’s performance is particularly spectacular (and should we really praise an actor for doing his job, and that moderately well?). One travesty—at least from a Christian perspective—is the fact that the only likable character in the film, the one who lives life looking for beauty, makes his living off the pain and suffering of others. Definitely a waste of my $7.50; I should have waited ’til it was on cable late-nite.
—Seth T. Hahne, age 26
Over 2 hours of admitably well done film making to basically tell us the grass IS NOT greener on the other side; be happy with the things you have: Family, wife, kids, job, etc. Duh—Tell me something I don’t know. That’s a nice enough message, and I certainly agree, but do you really have to tell it using 2 separate scenes of topless teenage girls among other things? The movie teaches that things are better when you die and you’ll “understand” once you have left this world. Well, this is true for believers in Jesus Christ, but not for everyone.

LISTEN UP AMERICAN GOING MOVIE PUBLIC: YOU DO NOT GO TO HEAVEN JUST BECAUSE YOU DIE!! Why should you? Can you really stand before a perfect, holy and just God and tell him you’ve been “good enough” to enter into his presence forever? Do we really need another message telling us that you go to heaven “just because” you died?

The worst thing is the movie is so well done and plays so well on the emotions that it will just glorify and contribute to this prevailing, incorrect view of what happens when we die.
—Jim, age 35
…This movie is about people dealing with their insecurities and their lives. Some repress. Some put on a facade and hide behind it. Some find another person, anyone, who can make them feel wanted, and cling to them. It recalls Solomon’s search in Ecclesiastes to find something fulfilling in life. Except these people haven’t read chapter 12. …From a filmmaking perspective, this is a brilliant movie. …“American Beauty” also deals with its material in a very unflinching way. It contains several sexual situations, real, imagined and implied, as well as several scenes of nudity. There is a lot of profanity, and a scene of unexpected violence. The film does deal with homosexuality, too. However, this movie definitely does not glorify the adultery, nor the violence, nor the homosexuality. I’m not sure how someone can come away from the film feeling that. Portrayal and glorification are not synonymous.

“American Beauty” is a brilliant film, but I do find it hard to recommend. Its subject matter is dark, and it is very disturbing. Through it all, though, the message to cherish the time we have on earth is a very strong one. However, it’s also sad that the characters in the movie don’t see past the beauty in the world to the creator of said beauty.
—Jason Murphy, age 20
…a movie that exhibits a year-in-the-life of two extremely disturbed families which glorify homosexuality, adultery, lies, profanity, murder, hate, nudity, etc…
—Sid Owens, age 53
Negative—…I started watching it with great interest, you know, it seemed like a normal movie in the beginning, but then it took an ugly turn. I didn’t even make it to the middle part of the film because it got extremely disturbing, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. The main problem I had was that the dad, who is obviously a grown man, starts lusting, obsessing, and having fantasies over his daughter’s friend, a teenage girl. This doesn’t begin until he sees their cheerleading show, during which he visualizes her opening her shirt to expose her chest (of course she wasn’t wearing a bra in his fantasy). I found that to be really offensive and creepy, but I kept watching anyway. Then the dad sneaks into his daughter’s room to look for the girl’s phone number. Plus, he even calls her! And runs out when he hears his daughter about to come out of her bathroom.

Eventually I started watching something else on television.

First of all, why would they show a man lusting over a teenage girl??? I realize the film is rated R, but I wouldn’t even call that adult content, that’s just downright perverted. more »
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 1
—T., age 20 (USA)
Comments from young people
Positive—I found “American Beauty” to be one of the most eye-opening movies I have seen in a long time. Be warned, however, it is to be viewed with an open mind and by mature audiences only. The film is beautifully filmed and has a lot to say about life in modern day America. Though there is heavy and offensive subject matter (sex, drugs, pedophelia, infidelity, and murder) none of it is glorified, as the film shows the negative results of each action. It features some of the most well written dialouge and voice overs that I’ve ever heard in a film as well as stunning cinematography. A modern classic and a must see for those prepared to handle it.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Tyler Proctor, age 16 (USA)