American Beauty (1999)

Directed by Sam Mendes

I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet and in a way, I am dead already.”

Everytime I read a review of American Beauty it is referred to as a comedy and each time I read this I do a double take.

It is a comedy, yes, in a technical sense (structure etc.), and yes there are funny moments, even very funny moments – scenes and lines. But it never feels like a comedy to me. It feels like a drama, albeit one with a great deal of humour in it.

The storyline and the tone of the film are just too serious for this to be called a comedy, even a “dark” comedy. The term is misleading.

American Beauty is the story of Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged, middle-class man in advertising who goes through a mid-life crisis of an absurd, funny and tragic sort. He falls in love, or thinks he does, with an under-aged girl (Angela played by Mena Suvari). It is like a pebble in a pool.

The ripples spread out and affect everyone around him.

The movie opens by giving us a perfect idea of who Lester is and where he is in his life: emotionally petrified, mentally sedated and an object of indifference, even contempt due to his complete absence of anything resembling vitality.

In a sense, the movie is something of a who-done-it. It tells is Lester will die. But it doesn’t tell us who kills him. Like murder mysteries, it introduces a wide range of characters from Lester’s family, to his neighbours, to people he works with and people he meets. The focus is on his family and neighbours, however.

But just as this isn’t really a comedy, it really isn’t a mystery. It contains those elements but isn’t defined by them.

Rather, it’s a kind of dramatic meditation on what it means to live in a western culture and the nature of beauty within it.

While every character plays his or her part, and each is important, for me the key character is Lester’s neighbour, Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), the gay former marine who is in denial. Lester and Col. Fitts are in some ways the same man – middle-aged and pretending, or going through the motions of living. And the consequences to their families are equally serious, though in different ways.

The difference between the two is where their journeys take them: Lester’s to a kind of redemption, Col. Fitts to tragedy.

Almost every character in the film is somehow skewed wrong. They are who they should be, or at least could be, and aren’t living the lives they could have.

And it’s all due to a kind of synergistic effect they have on one another within their families.

It’s the film’s notion of “look closer,” exemplified through Col. Fitts son Ricky (Wes Bentley) that is at the heart of the story. Both the characters and the audience need to look past the surface of things in order to appreciate and understand these lives.

When the movie begins, almost all the characters are in a state of catatonia, Lester being the one most representative of it and the one who rebels against this state and initiates a kind of domino effect.

In the end, everyone is changed – some for the better, some not so fortunate.

It’s one of my favourite films of the last ten years or so and I’ve watched it many times. I think this is partly because it simply works as a good, engaging film. But it’s also because in many ways it is open-ended and allows for a number of interpretations.

Perhaps the thing that most resonates here is its relevance to the worlds many of us live in, worlds very much resembling Lester’s.

1 Response

  1. Susu says:

    The intention is so clear that everything else falls into place, perfectly. Kevin Spacey’s suburban husband and father reminded me of his character in “The Ref” and that could only be a good thing. Annette Bening and her giggle works wonders here. Their marriage is a tabloid version of a “Who’s Afraid To Virginia Woolf” Which means very close to someone we know. The biggest surprises in the film. besides the amazing dexterity of Sam Mendes at his first outing behind the camera, are West Bentley. Chris Cooper, Thora Brch and Allison Janney. As I’m writing this 8 years after its first release, the Oscars and the whole hullabaloo, I’m very surprised that West Bentley hasn’t become a major star. He is amazing in “American Beauty” the complexities of his character are based on recognizable human stands, the hardest to face up to and I went where he went. Thora Birch is lovely as the object of his attention and the film, I believe, is here to say.

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