Directed By: Sam Mendes
Produced By: Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks
Written By: Alan Ball
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper
Edited By: Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury
Music By: Thomas Newman
Distributed By: Dreamworks Pictures (September 1999)
Budget: $15 million (domestic box office $356 million)
This is one of those films everyone has heard about, be it in references or, if a student, the inevitable analysis in textbooks. For American audiences, raised upon the patriotic ideal of two-parent households in a lovely suburban home with front and backyards, a dog, and Home Owner Associations, American Beauty is the ultimate critique of that. Except its themes can be applied not only to the States, for the cultural problems presented are widespread. Alan Ball’s masterpiece of storytelling takes all the things not only Americans but people in general hide yet are inherently the most important issues of all. In doing so, Ball/Mendes show them off in all their beauty, and all their ugly.
–BE WARNED THAT THIS REVIEW CONTAINS HIGH-LEVEL SPOILERS–
It’s set in the 80s, or the 90s, or now; the story is the same. Lester Burnham (Spacey) is in a midlife crisis: his marriage (to Carolyn, Bening) is sexless and boring, his job is insulting and demeaning, and his daughter (Jane; Birch) hates him. Masturbating in the morning, as he narrates in the first two minutes of the film, is the most exciting part of his day. Enter the next door neighbors: Colonel Fitts (Cooper), the hard ass military father, Ricky Fitts (Bentley), his emotionally abused son who smokes pot and sells drugs, and his mother, who is literally an introverted shell. Tying it all together is Jane’s friend Angela, the seemingly slutty cheerleader, and Buddy the successful and egotistical business rival to Carolyn.
Within the first half hour of the film, we’re introduced to ten different taboos of society that no one likes to admit: declining marriage after so many years of routine, Lester’s crush on Angela that comes from his desire to escape life, the dismissive growing up daughter, the military dad, the emotionally scarred son, the same son who turns a profit selling drugs, the shell-of-a-human wife, the slutty friend who is actually a virgin, the gay partners who live down the block, and the sex addicted stag who starts an affair with Lester’s wife. There are probably, no, there are definitely more. It takes multiple big issues and tackles them in an incredibly real, yet creative way by weaving them together into a single stream of intersecting plot lines – because that’s what life is: a steady stream of life experiences connecting and disconnecting.
Alan Ball does a fantastic job with the screenplay. One of the most amazing things when watching the film, for me, was how literally every line of dialogue went towards expanding the personality profile of one of the characters. There were no wasted scenes or fluff or irrelevance; all of it went towards shedding new light on the messages being portrayed. His original screenplay Oscar was well deserved. Sam Mendes does an equally impressive job directing, weaving an otherwise complicated story visually and with score to give audiences something not only understandable and relatable, but entertaining and fun. It’s awkward sometimes when I would laugh at a scene, knowing all the serious and sad events currently playing out. That’s the point, though; they want you to laugh. They want you to see how ridiculous it is what we put ourselves through to hide who we truly are just so that we can feel normal. Instead, this constant charade turns us into monsters who do nothing but frustrate and harm those around them.
Two storylines notably highlight this: the relationship between Ricky and Jane, and the confrontation between Col. Fitts and Lester. The first is the love story. Ricky is scarred and hates his father while feeling sorry for his mother, whilst Jane horribly self-conscious and abhors the relationship her parents have to each other and with her. They’re messed up, to put it simply, but together they find solace in their peculiarities. They discover that they don’t have to be shut off to life and joyless, because with each other they find happiness. They celebrate each other’s uniqueness and shun those around them who conform.
Then there’s Lester, the protagonist. From the start, we know he’s going to die. He tells us. This creates an atmosphere of suspense throughout the story as we try to determine which character hates him enough to kill him. Ricky seems open to it in his strange way, but it’s just joking around. His boss certainly hates him and would maybe hire a hit. His wife feels as if Lester is holding her from success, which is ironic as that’s what she does to him. Instead, in one of film history’s greatest reveals, it is the Colonel. Fitts, the hard military, abusive father, antigay conservative. First, he’s given the wrong assumption that Lester is paying his son for sex, which is funny how the confusion is caused. Yet, when Fitts confronts Lester, he isn’t angry, he doesn’t punch him. Instead, he goes in to kiss him. For Fitts thinks Lester is gay, and seeks out someone to share who he truly is.
Lester is not gay. He was paying Ricky for pot, and so turns Fitts away. It’s embarrassing, and sad, but more importantly it’s dangerous, because Lester has now seen the real Fitts, and Fitts has an image to uphold. An image so important to him, even though it is a complete lie, that he is willing to commit murder to protect him, even though the act shakes him to his core. Lester, on the other hand, dies happy, because he sees the beauty of it all. He learns, after all these years of living in the monochromatic suburbia lifestyle, that there’s no point to hiding.
Human beings are filled with beauty, but instead we hide it away to fit in with societal standards. We pretend in public that we’re not gay, or bored of our marriage, or cheating, or have a fetish towards dolls, or this or that or anything, and this constant lying not only to others but to ourselves hurts us and destroys us. Every character is proof towards this downfall: the worsts of it (Fitts), the beacons of hope and acceptance (Jane and Ricky), and the otherwise inevitable abyss portrayed in Barbara Fitts, an utter shell of personality that is devoid of all sense of emotion.
I read that in recent years, American Beauty has been seen as increasingly too praised at its release. Whether this is true, I think, is redundant, because the film still stands as a masterpiece today. Be it 1999 or 2009, all the problems shown are still very much problems, and few people seem to be pushing to change things. This problem runs rampant in the United States, but is seen throughout the globe. There’s way more in American Beauty that could be discussed then I am able to discuss in this single post. It’s one of those films people study and write about for a higher number of pages then the screenplay. Best of all, it’s filled with more messages and allusions still undiscovered, because everyone sees it a different way; interprets it uniquely. There is no one single message here, and this is very much on purpose. You’re not supposed to agree with a single standard theme, but instead take your own from it. But then, that’s the beauty of it all.