I will most likely end up with a life just like Lester Burnham’s, it’s sort of an inevitable consequence of living in my view!
Written By: Alan Ball
Directed By: Sam Mendes
In high school I wrote a story entitled The Summer Of My Great Discontent, no doubt a stolen title, and I remember my teacher writing me a long red marked response about how it was out of touch with American values. My paper was a lot like American Beauty, obviously nowhere on the same artistic level, it attacked the idea of the happy home and the loss of happiness. I didn’t have a happy childhood, I’m not one to cry about it, but in my fractured home I was raised by a mother who bought into the American ideal and sacrificed all pretense of happiness to try and make it happen. American Beauty has many layers, but its most obvious one is the blatant attack on the idea of American accomplishment and contentment.
There are caricatures aplenty in American Beauty, but life in the American dream is a series of caricatures on the outside. My entire life people around me have done nothing but put forth the outward image of normalcy while hidden on the inside is a deep melancholy. American Beauty isn’t the first movie to attack the banality of the modern life, the falseness of it and the hatred that it creates, but of the ones to do as such it is the best I have seen. It doesn’t provide any deep insight into the characters because it isn’t presenting them at their fullest, it is intentionally showcasing one side of them, the side that everyone sees and judges them on. However, that side has cracks and in small moments, more often than not supplied by Ricky’s handheld camera, we do get to see the depth that is beneath the surface. Because they have bought into what society wants and foregone happiness to ensure they fit the bill, the caricature is all we can see and their true nature remains hidden.
The reality of the characters remains veiled, even though that is a misnomer because as with any caricature you can see through it and to the real person rather easily. Then one day Lester has a reawakening and decides to live life once again. Whether or not his choices are smart is immaterial, because they are making him happy. However, as the end of the film shows being happy for yourself isn’t good enough, because we are not solitary beings, we crave family and friendship, thus Lester only truly achieves happiness when he comes to the realization that his family being truly happy, not society happy, is what matters the most to him. Lester’s journey is the most focused on, but the journey’s of Jane and Carolyn are equally as important and work with the same themes as Lester’s. Family ends up being the bane of most peoples existence, but it really shouldn’t be, and American Beauty gives us innumerable examples of why that is.
I was quite taken by the performances in American Beauty across the board. While people rightfully rave over the turns by Annette Benning and Kevin Spacey, I found myself loving the work of Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts. There is every opportunity for the Colonel to be beyond a caricature, to be a mockery of what he is supposed to represent, but with subtle, nuanced and restrained emotion Cooper avoids that path and delvers a stoic and strong performance. But, this is the film of Spacey and Benning, who give two powerful performances because of how false they can be and how the things that shouldn’t matter to them matter the most. Spacey is lecherous and liberated at the end, while Benning has to take us through a draining emotional breakdown before she can come to the same sort of redemption that her husband has already found. Thora Birch and Wes Bentley are solid, Allison Janney is catatonic and Mena Suvari is a pleasant surprise as the epitome of the vapid liar.
There is comedy to provide relief from the heavier moments and to further highlight the banality of what we are seeing. No moment is funnier than Lester’s declaration to his caught wife that, “Well, actually, Janine is senior drive-thru manager, so you kind of are on her turf.” I had to pause the DVD so I could recover from laughter after that line. The inclusion of darkly comedic moments and the moments of suspense created in the ending help add yet another layer to American Beauty and save it from being nothing more than a message piece.
I was struck by the imagery of Conrad Hall and some of the directorial choices of Sam Mendes. The obvious visual flash is found in the rose petal scenes. But, there is also something deliciously offsetting in the use of color. Every scene is bright, because this isn’t a drab and dreary outer world, it’s only on the inside that people are full of dread and misgivings. Hall made me quite happy with the wonderful red door in the rain shot while Annette Benning sits in the SUV, a beautiful shot and an example of the little things that I look for in a film. The choice to have so much conveyed through Ricky’s camera provides for interesting visuals and insightful framing, push-ins that focus on a characters true beauty or someone’s new lease on life. Most surprising for me was how much I enjoyed the script, because I have never been a fan of Alan Ball’s work. I found Six Feet Under dreadfully bad and True Blood remains a terrible exercise in trash television. But, in American Beauty his dialogue is witty and gets to the heart of the problem while slowly destroying the caricatures that make up American life.
I loved American Beauty when I first saw it sometime around 2001, and it has reached even more profound levels for me in the following years. It’s a film about ugliness that features true beauty, but then again, beauty is all in the eye of the beholder isn’t it.