A dramedy that won the Best Picture Oscar for 2000. It was the break-out film for writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes, thus giving us, at a stroke: Six Feet Under, True Blood; Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go. Chris Cooper also got his launch here, and there was great hype for a while about the younger actors, though unfortunately they haven't amounted to all that much since. Finally, Kevin Spacey won his second Oscar here.
Notable for being a dark, cynical, and dead-funny look at modern suburbia, possibly encouraging the recent trend of arty/angsty, relatively-obscure dramas getting all the Best Picture nods. It's also notable for juggling a ton of characters, successfully, where most films top out at three or four.
As to the plot, the opening narration tells it all:
The characters in the film:
- Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a Henpecked Husband and personality-less advertising-magazine wage slave who feels trapped in a shallow and meaningless life. He is the film's Posthumous Narrator and main character, and the story concerns his efforts to find happiness. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser... and they're right."
- Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), his wife, head of a real-estate firm and a Stepford Smiler of alarming caliber. "My company sells an image. It's part of my job to live that image."
- Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), their daughter of sixteen years. "Janie's a pretty typical teenager: angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass... but I don't want to lie to her." She resents the way her father has begun to withdraw from her, and, in the very first scene of the movie, takes someone up on an offer to murder him.
- Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), who is on the cheerleading team with Jane and quickly becomes the object of Lester's fantasies, causing him to start an intensive work-out regimen in an attempt to seduce her. She acts more worldly and experienced than Jane, and isn't afraid to use her body to advantage: "If people I don't even know look at me and want to fuck me, it means... I really have a shot at being a model!"
- Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the new next-door neighbor to the Burnhams and Jane's eventual love interest. He is a weird combination of Stalker with a Crush, Cloudcuckoolander and Shrouded in Myth (in regards to where he was before he moved here), and sees more clearly than anyone else in the cast. He is an experienced dealer of marijuana, becoming Lester's supplier, and carries a video camera everywhere to record interesting moments out of his life. "I didn't mean to scare you. I just think you're interesting."
- Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), Carolyn's main business rival, the self-styled "King of Real Estate." He's powerful, success-minded, has enormously charismatic eyebrows, and appeals to her Stepford Smiler instincts: "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times." Eventually, the two of them start an affair. He also introduces Carolyn to the shooting range, where she picks up a Smith & Wesson once owned by a man named Chekhov...
- Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Chris Cooper), a now-inactive Marine who fought in Vietnam. He's trying to raise Ricky in his own image ("You need structure... you need discipline"), which is meeting with limited success. He's also a flaming homophobe.
- Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney), the colonel's silent, disjointed wife. She doesn't get many scenes, but Janney uses even her character's silence to communicate that there are some severe repression problems going on here.
- Jim Berkley (Sam Robards) and Jim Olmeyer (Scott Bakula), a gay couple who are the Burnhams' next-door neighbors on the other side. Bakula has joked that these are the most normal people in the film -- and the thing is, he's right. They help Lester develop his new work-out regimen.
Almost none of these characters are who they appear to be. The Burnhams evolve, while others are simply turned around on a single Wham! Line.
As the film progresses, Lester quits his job (but not before blackmailing his boss into giving him a pension), takes up a new one at a fast food joint, and trades in his sensible Toyota for a vintage Firebird he always wanted as a boy.
- A-Cup Angst: Jane is looking up breast augmentation on the internet early in the movie. Inexplicable, as we see later in the film that she's quite amply endowed.
- Adopt the Dog: Lester holds back from taking the girl of his dreams.
- All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Played straight with Lester's attraction to Angela, and subverted by Ricky's attitude towards her. Double subverted then since Jane is also a cheerleader (although not a stereotypically blonde one).
- American Title: Of the ironic variety.
- Anti-Hero (Type I): Lester Burnham.
- Armoured Closet Gay: Col. Fitts.
- Big Ol' Eyebrows: Buddy Kane. DVD Commentary claims that cast and crew were occasionally mesmerized.
- Bitch Alert: Carolyn. Her first lines to her daughter are "are you trying to look unattractive today?" and her idea of congratulating her on her routine is "you didn't screw up once".
- Black Comedy
- Camera Fiend: Angela thinks Ricky is this but he films Jane because he thinks she's interesting, and stops when she asks him to. The scene where Jane strips off for him on camera points this out as, while she is topless, Ricky is pointing the camera at her eyes because of her expression.
- Casting Couch: Angela boasts of sleeping with a photographer to enhance her modeling career. Turns out she was lying.
- Chivalrous Pervert: Lester's obsession over Angela is pretty Squick-inducing, but when he actually has a chance to fulfill his fantasy he stops once he realizes that for all her bravado Angela is still an inexperienced little girl.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Mrs. Fitts.
- A Date with Rosie Palms:
Lester: "Look at me, jerking off in the shower... This will be the high point of my day; it's all downhill from here."
- His wife also catches him in bed. "Lester, are you masturbating?!"
- Deadpan Snarker: Lester especially, but sometimes Carolyn and Jane as well.
- Dysfunction Junction: Pretty much everyone except Lester, Ricky, and Jane is horribly insecure, and those three exceptions are still a bit weird.
- And, actually, the entire point of Jane's character arc is that she has a horrifically poor self-image at the beginning. It does improve throughout the movie.
- Faux Yay: Ricky sarcastically claims to be a prostitute who services other men when his father tells him that he would rather him dead than homosexual.
- Fille Fatale: Subverted, if not full on Deconstructed, with Angela.
- First Law of Tragicomedies: While not completely unserious, the movie begins with a somewhat lighthearted / sarcastic nature, but the film starts to develop a more serious tone later on.
- Flower Motifs: Roses and rose petals occur throughout the film, of the variety known as Rosa 'American Beauty'.
- Foregone Conclusion
- Go Out with a Smile
- Gory Discretion Shot: When Lester is killed.
- Have I Mentioned I Am Sexually Active Today?: Angela.
- The Hedonist: Lester Burnham, as he tries to find happiness in his dull life.
- Homage Shot: To Ordinary People during the dinner scene.
- Hurricane of Euphemisms: When Carolyn catches Lester masturbating: "Oh, all right! So shoot me, I was whacking off! That's right, I was choking the bishop, chafing the carrot, you know, saying "hi" to my monster!"
- If You Can Read This...: There's a sign in Lester's cubicle at work that simply reads "Look Closer." This was just something the set designer just felt like decorating the set with. Director Sam Mendes noticed this after seeing the footage in the editing room, and the phrase "Look Closer" would eventually become the movie's tagline.
- Informed Ability: Ricky says Jane is interesting, as opposed to Angela who is boring and "totally ordinary", though while onscreen, Angela's character, an aspiring model, is much more day-seizing and dynamic (or at least her stories are) than Jane who mostly just complains about her parents or serves as an audience/conversation partner for Ricky. Possibly justified in that he is a teen, so someone who will listen to him express his viewpoints is probably pretty interesting. Also, when he calls Angela boring, he also calls her ugly, so he may just have been acting spitefully then.
- He was acting spitefully because Angela's line before that was "Yeah, well at least I'm not ugly."
- He probably meant "ugly on the inside" rather than literally ugly.
- In Medias Res
- In the End You Are on Your Own: Carolyn spouts this at one point.
- Invisible to Gaydar: The two Jims. Col. Fitts, a raging homophobe who is actually deeply closeted, doesn't even realize they're gay at first.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Lester's reaction to discovering Carolyn and Buddy's affair.
- Karma Houdini: Col. Fitts after murdering Lester.
- Knight Templar: Col. Fitts, who subjects his own son to urinalysis drug screening.
- Letting Her Hair Down: When Jane shows Ricky her breasts, she lets her hair down first and is much more beautiful because of it. She is also shown with her hair down when she and Ricky have their intimate scene.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Lester Burnham, Caroline Burnham, Jane Burnham, Colonel Frank Fitts, Barbara Fitts, Ricky Fitts, Angela Hayes, Buddy Kane, Jim Olmeyer, and Jim Berkley. No, none of these are just filler characters--each of them plays a crucial role in the plot, or in someone else's characterization.
- Loners Are Freaks: Ricky Fitts. Ironically, he is probably the most normal person in the movie.
- Also an Ironic Meaningful Name: Ricky does not fit. It's not a coincidence that the movie starts when his family moves in next door.
- Ricky's backstory is that he had a fit (flying into a rage and attacking another kid) that landed him in a mental hospital, and his father had a fit when he though Ricky was servicing Lester.
- Madden Into Misanthropy: Lester's Character Development arc goes through this and out the other side before being tragically cut short.
- Meaningful Name: Ricky Fitts (see above).
- Jane. Could be a play on Plain Jane, but as Ricky points out, she is beautiful. Opposite of Angela in that she isn't a conventional beauty.
- Ricky = Richard = Dick. Dick and Jane.
- Nightmare Fetishist: Ricky's obsession with "beauty" extends to gazing with fascinated detachment at Lester's corpse lying in a pool of blood.
- Nipple-and-Dimed: It is an R-rated movie. Subverted by Birch's topless scene, however, which emphasizes her vulnerability over her sexuality. More so with the other eventual nipples on display.
- Noodle Incident: The sycamore tree that Carolyn cut down.
- Not What It Looks Like: Col. Fitts spies on Ricky and Lester getting high, but their unfortunate placement and movements make it look like something sexual from Col Fitts' POV.
- Object Tracking Shot: The famous "bag blowing in the wind" scene.
- Posthumous Character: Providing a...
- ...Posthumous Narration
- Power Hair: One of Carolyn Burnham's numerous ways of "projecting an image of success at all times."
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis! / Punctuated Pounding: "IT'S! JUST! A! COUCH!"
- And a more subdued one: "Don't. Interrupt. Me. Honey."
- "That's. What. You. Think!"
- Red Herring: Throughout the movie we are led to believe that Lester's wife (or maybe Ricky) killed him.
- Rhetorical Request Blunder: Subverted in the opening: it's actually just a Red Herring.
- Rule of Symbolism: Mother of... The first shot of Lester at work he's reflected on a computer monitor. The text looks like jail bars. That's just ONE example. The film is ripe for Media classes.
- Sexless Marriage: Lester and Carolyn. As Lester says it: "This hasn't been a marriage, for years, but you were happy as long as I kept my mouth shut. Well guess what, I've changed! And the new me whacks off when he feels horny, because you're obviously not gonna help me out in that department!"
- Shaking Her Hair Loose: When Jane strips for Ricky, she unties her hair before taking off her bra.
- Shout-Out/Significant Anagram: Lester Burnham = Humbert Learns.
- Note also that Angela's surname (Hayes) is homophonous with Lolita's surname (Haze).
- Spiritual Successor: The film provided much of the inspiration for Desperate Housewives, with its Posthumous Narration and exploration of the darker side of suburbia.
- And it is itself arguably a Spiritual Successor of famous "middle-aged adultery" comedies as The Seven Year Itch and 10, albeit much darker than them.
- Little Children could be considered a unofficial Spiritual Successor, as it shares the same theme of the dark root of suburbia, albeit with less Black Comedy, and also is scored by Thomas Newman.
- Stalking Is Love: Played straight with Ricky, although he means no harm, and really does love Jane.
- Stepford Smiler: Carolyn. "See how those pruning shears match her gardening clogs? That's not an accident."
- Stepford Suburbia
- There Are No Therapists: Or marriage counselors, apparently.
- This Loser Is You: Lester.
- Took a Level in Badass: Lester after quitting his job, begins working out ... and standing up to his wife.
- Wham! Line: "This is my first time."
- Wham Kiss:
- In-universe but not really to the audience is Lester yelling "sit down!" when Jane tries to leave the dinner table. She and Carolyn are shocked that Lester actually raised his voice.
- Would Hurt a Child: Both Jane and Ricky get hit by their parents in the same scene with the other watching. Carolyn slaps Jane in a moment of rage while Colonel Fitz barges into Ricky's room to hit him for opening his private cabinet.
- You Are What You Hate: Col. Fitts.