Usually, the films that win the Best Picture Oscar are serious, weighty films featuring noteworthy heroes and heroines. "Lighter" fare, such as comedies, musicals, and satires are often ignored. But one of the best films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the last 20 years is "American Beauty," which came out in 1999 and is a dark comedy replete with biting social commentary.
"American Beauty" stars Kevin Spacey. He plays Lester Burnham, a mundane middle-aged man who is suffering from a severe mid-life crisis. The middle-management drone has strained relationships with his materialistic wife, Carolyn (played by Annette Bening), and daughter, Jane (played by Thora Birch). His dull life changes when he meets two of Jane's friends: Ricky (played by Wes Bentley) and Angela (played by Mena Suvari). With Ricky, he starts smoking pot, and with Angela triggers his fantasy life enormously.
All the performances in "American Beauty" are excellent. Kevin Spacey won an Oscar for playing the self-loathing Lester. Somehow, he gives the audience a character they can like who has few redeeming qualities and does not really even like himself. Annette Bening's character is also hard to like, but no one can fault her performance as a suburban woman embedded in a culture that ultimately corrodes her family. Bening's performance earned her an Academy Award nomination. Another strong performance is by Chris Cooper, who plays Ricky's very conservative dad.
Although "American Beauty" is bleak, it is also very funny. It is also a great character study.