American Beauty (1999)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: Sam Mendes’ directorial debut, American Beauty, is one of the most psychologically engrossing and, admittedly, strange films of all-time. Let’s get another thing out of the way too: Sam Mendes’ directorial debut, American Beauty, is one of history’s greatest films, and is one of the best directorial debuts in recent memory.

Sure, it doesn’t take a movie genius to call American Beauty a great movie. In 1999, the critically acclaimed film collected five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography. On the surface, though, the film’s success seems far-fetched. The plot consists of a creepy middle-aged man fantasizing about his teenage daughter’s best friend, while he struggles with his rather extreme mid-life crisis. That doesn’t exactly sound like the winning formula for a movie. But the beauty of the film lies in its tagline—“look closer”—as both the audience and the characters are encouraged to do as the film progresses.

As the characters look closer, they unveil aspects of society, themselves, and, finally, the beauty of the world that they never saw before. Meanwhile, as the audience looks closer, we are able to see how American Beauty succeeds in a way few other movies ever could—through superior dialogue, intriguing characters, exceptional portrayals of those characters, provoking music, detailed symbolism, and several overarching themes that provide commentary on life, society, and ordinariness.

Dialogue drives a movie, and in American Beauty it rides like a 1970 Pontiac Firebird.  The film’s script is fantastic. The delivery of it, particularly by Kevin Spacey, is even better. In the script and delivery you can find great humor as well as vital teachings on family life and society as a whole. Simple lines such as Annette Bening’s Carolyn asking Thora Birch’s Jane “are you trying to look unattractive today?” or Lester sarcastically responding to his boss’s request for a minute of his time, saying, “for you Brad, I’ve got five” are delivered so well that you can’t help but laugh.

Then there are scenes that are funny on their own and made even more so by the acting –the scene where Colonel Fitts meets his gay neighbors and thinks they are business partners, rather than life partners. And, of course, there is the dinner scene in which Lester explains “I didn’t lose it [his job]. It’s not like, ‘Whoops! Where’d my job go?’ I QUIT. Someone pass the asparagus, please” before defiantly throwing the asparagus at the wall (which was not scripted, by the way).

In reality, American Beauty is a piece of literature thrust onto the big screen, a novel on par with the likes of Catcher in the Rye in regards to symbols, themes, and overall capacity to make the audience think. Yet American Beauty functions better as a movie than it would in print, as ghastly as any variation of the phrase “the movie was better than the book” might sound. What sets American Beauty above any potential print adaptation is the acting—that is, the ability of the actors to depict the characters with such precision.

All of these characters–Lester, Carolyn, Jane, Colonel Fitts and others such as the gay neighbors and the “king” of real-estate Buddy Kane–form the neighborhood. It’s never specified where exactly the movie is set, which is important because it shows that this neighborhood, filled with these characters, could be anywhere in suburban America.

As the film begins, Spacey’s narration follows a bird’s-eye view on the neighborhood as it pans from a far-out look at suburbia, to zooming in on the neighborhood, to zooming in on the street, and finally, for the duration of the movie, zooming in on the lives of all the characters living on that same street. This film truly dares to “look closer” at suburbia, a neighborhood, a street, and life. Angela repeats throughout the movie that there is “nothing worse in life than being ordinary”.

On the surface, every character in the movie is ordinary. From a bird’s-eye view, it is a picturesque neighborhood, a happy couple and their one daughter in one house, a veteran with his wife and son in the next.

Look closer. Lester Burnham and his wife Carolyn have lost their happiness a long time ago, and it is hard to tell whether their daughter Jane ever had any. Meanwhile, next door, Colonel Fitts is stuck in a world of ignorance–or, rather, simply denial– towards homosexuality, his own son’s affairs, and his wife’s depression.

You can’t see this movie without it forcing you to examining further, the characters wouldn’t allow it. Carolyn tells Lester her “business is selling an image” and few care more about their image than she. In one telling scene, she is unable to sell a house, but before breaking down and losing it altogether, she goes through the steps of closing the slider and shutting the shades. The world must not see her unhappy; the world must not know she is unhappy. In this sense, American Beauty touches on a major theme—the constant preoccupation of maintaining a pristine image, even when things truly aren’t good at all.

Then a change occurs. The spark, Lester’s obsession with young Angela, is bizarre but dynamic nonetheless. Suddenly, each character is chasing something that they’ve been pretending to have for years: happiness. Their searches are equally bizarre and self-centered. Lester begins smoking pot and working out in attempts to woo his high school daughter’s friend. Carolyn begins sleeping with “the king” of real-estate. And Jane starts to date Ricky.

The Burnham family goes their separate ways in search of individual happiness. In a sense, they all find the elusive happiness or at least come to terms with the fact that it’s a term based solely on perspective. The end result of their searches is tragic; there is death, not only of Lester but also, in a lot of ways, of happiness. Yet, in its entirety, the end is also liberating and altogether fitting.

Only in the final minutes of the movie has each character stopped worrying about image, for however brief a period. Angela reveals to Lester that she was a virgin the entire time—her constant stories of sex, a façade to stand out above the rest, to avoid the dreaded ordinary. And before that Colonel Fitts kisses Lester (who really has one hell of a last hour on earth), revealing that his homophobia was all the result of closeted feelings, or at least curiosities. At that moment, the closest look you get, you can see that every character is tragic in their own right, searching for happiness while hiding from the world.

Then the zooming in stops, right as Lester dies, and suddenly, the camera begins to pan out as if to say: look further. The subtle reversal of the tagline by Sam Mendes in the waning moments is integral—it ties everything together. While the closer you look, life is complicated, tragic, and sad, the further scope you take, the more beautiful everything is. This is not to say that ignorance towards what is truly happening in such a neighborhood is the best course. Rather, in the midst of life—complicated as it may be—we must always be able to take a broader perspective and find beauty in the world, whether it be in a floating paper bag or lying on your back at boy scout camp or your grandmother’s hands or your own wife and daughter.

Lester, fittingly, brings the masterpiece of a film to a close, saying, “It’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world.”