American Beauty (1999)

american beauty poster

The first time I saw American Beauty it was the last in a three consecutive weekend movie run. The other two films were Fight Club and Bringing Out the Dead. All three films are about men trying to come to terms with what it means to be a man in America in this day and age. Fight Club finds meaning in deconstructing everything down to basic needs, and feeling through pain. Bringing Out the Dead gives meaning to its character through drug use, (Editors note: that’s totally not what these films are about – I totally missed the points when I wrote this) but it was in American Beauty that I found some sense of hope.

In the film, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) plays a middle-aged, middle-class suburbanite, with seemingly everything he could desire. He has a good, well-paying job, a beautiful wife (Annette Bening), a large luxurious house, and a lovely daughter (Thora Birch). Yet, with all of this, he is not happy. In fact, all of these things are not quite what they seem. His employer is facing cutbacks, and he may soon lose his job. His marriage is in shambles, and his daughter openly hates him. Early, we see him masturbating in the shower – in a voiceover he states this is the high point of his day. All is not well in the house of Burnham.

All of this changes when Lester meets Angela (Mena Suvari), his daughter Jane’s gorgeous, cheerleader friend. On first seeing Angela during a cheer routine, Lester feels a special, lustful connection. Later that night, Lester overhears Angela playfully telling Jane that if he would only work out, he would be sexy. His lust over this teenage vixen becomes the catalyst for the film and Lester’s very life.

Soon after Lester quits his job, in fact, he bilks the company for a year’s salary by threatening to disclose scandalous information that he has become privy to. He begins smoking pot, and buys a hot rod. He plays with remote control cars, takes a job at a fast food joint, and starts working out. In every way, he reverts back to his teenage years. Even the soundtrack begins blaring out classic rock tunes from the 1970s. Finally after years, decades even, of feeling low, miserable, and not alive, he feels great.

This reversion back to his glory days is only the beginning. It is a reversion back to the days when he had fun when he felt alive. But he is not a man who will stop there. This is just the beginning point to a lifelong conversion of living a full life, as opposed to a life full of the right things, but that is ultimately empty. Or it would be if he was not shortly dead (this is not nearly the spoiler you might think it is, for Lester announced his death within the first minutes of the film.) Toward the end of the film, we can see that Lester is already outgrowing his childish behavior. When he yells at his daughter, he immediately feels the sting of regret. When given the chance to indulge in his lusts, he backs away, understanding that it is not right. Just as the music changed to classic rock with the first change, here it has changed again, turning into the same classic rock being covered by newer, contemporary artists.

Many will probably say that using the lust for a teen, and illicit drug use as a catalyst for change, is not a change for the better. I can already hear my mother scolding me for having seen the movie, much less reviewed it from 2,000 miles away in Oklahoma. Yet, here it works and works well. I don’t believe the film is saying that these things should be the means to a change, these things only served as means for this character to break free from the rut that had become his life. There is a telling scene where Lester and his wife are overcome with sexual desire. As he dips his wife to kiss her, she stops the embrace because he is near to spilling his glass of wine on an expensive couch. An argument ensues with Lester proclaiming that “it’s just a couch,” while his wife is horrified at the thought of ruining said couch. There lies one of the central themes of the film. That these characters are so wrapped up in the material that they lose sight of the better pleasure of life, including lovemaking.

It is not a perfect film. The Burnham’s neighbor, Col. Fritts (Chris Cooper) seems a caricatured archetype. He plays a hateful, homophobe who really carries deep-rooted homosexual tendencies. It is too outlandish to be considered real. Though it must be said the part is played marvelously by Chris Cooper. Jane’s speech about being a freak too may move the young kids who consider themselves the nonconformist, shy type, but it is too after-school special for my tastes.

I’ve left out some of the best scenes and an important character, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). He plays the drug-dealing son of Col. Fritts, who likes to record everything on his video camera. There is a moving scene in which he and Jane watch an old tape he recorded of a plastic bag floating through the air. It is a moving, poetic scene that conjures up thoughts of the futility of life and its very beauty. It is that type of movie. It creates beautiful, moving, simple scenes that bring a sense of hope to live, while at the same time, showing the ultimate horror of living it.

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