Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a disillusioned father who’s suffering mid-life meltdown and is increasingly alienated from grasping, estate agent wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), sullen teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and his neighbours.
Tired of being “a whore for the advertising industry” he dryly blackmails his boss into a pay-off (“Can you prove that you didn’t offer to save my job if I let you blow me?”), goes to work in a drive-in burger joint, starts lifting weights and smoking pot in his basement and returns to an adolescent hedonism that throws his family and the all-American suburb into chaos.
The sexually frustrated Carolyn begins a meaningless affair with estate agent Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) while Les fantasises about Angela (Mena Suvari), a teenage friend of his daughter’s.
Displeased with her physical appearance, daughter Jane she is saving up for breast augmentation surgery (something she clearly does not need) and as the film progresses, she develops an unusual relationship with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the boy next door.
He views life through a video camera, and, when he first trains his lens on Jane, she is nonplused. After a while, however, she feels flattered, and, following a particularly brutal encounter with her parents, she slowly undresses in front of a window while Ricky watches.
Ricky has his own problems – his mother (Allison Janney) is virtually withdrawn from life, and his father (Chris Cooper) is an ex-Marine neo-Nazi who submits his son’s urine for drug testing every six months.
Meanwhile, Jane also has to deal with Angela’s growing fascination with the possibility of sleeping with Lester – a consideration that disgusts her.
Their disparate needs make for a comic tragedy of misunderstanding that combines acute observations with side-splitting scenarios.
British theatre director Sam Mendes made an astonishing film debut with this sublime black comedy, and this truly outstanding film (on which Steven Spielberg acted as an uncredited producer) deservedly picked up a clutch of Oscars, including best picture, best director and best actor for Spacey.