It’s good to be back reviewing movies!! Finally haha :)) American Beauty’s true message is elusive. Actually, there might be no central message at all, which turns out to be a good thing. It won Best Picture in 1999 so that naturally piqued my interest and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. Set in the the typical American surburbia, American Beauty’s characters each struggle with beauty and desire. A calm half-dazed Lester Burnham(Kevin Spacey) voices the words ‘In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet.’ in the opening. With simple percussion music being played throughout supposedly serious moments like this, Sam Mendes’ prominent use of juxtaposition makes this film a dark comedy masterpiece. American Beauty finds a strange balance between tragedy and comedy, while still being able to raise provocative points that divide its audience even till today.
Let me first start off by saying that American Beauty has probably none of the traits that make it look like a Best Picture winner. It’s actually not too ‘artsy’ like Birdman’s dramedy nor is it too emotional. But it packs a bang in the acting department. Kevin Spacey exudes a certain degree of misplaced confidence in his role as a man with a mid-life crises. Annette Bening plays the unsatisfied wife hoping to regain her self-worth. Thora Birch plays the daughter who has trouble with the image of beauty who has a friend (Mena Suvari) who hides her insecurities with a false exterior. As you’ll see, Sam Mendes has made issues with insecurity and beauty a systemic problem that all the characters face. In dealing with these issues, characters are intertwined in ways which are amusing but poignant at the same time.
Kevin Spacey is by far the most influential character of the story. He’s able to come off as a funny and pathetic character who draws our sympathy. Spacey’s Lester is an iconic tragicomedy protagonist. The film starts off with his dysfunctional family and quickly introduces characters who have important roles to play in the story. One stark feature is the metaphorical representation of the rose. Cinematographer Conrad Hall and Sam Mendes slowed the falling of roses in Lester’s hallucinations. Once again, Spacey’s self-directed expressions perfectly depict the grown-ass man with a heart of a child. Lester’s infatuation with Angela( her daughter’s friend) is his desire to break free from the mundane conventionalities of his life.
The story progresses through different stages where it looks as if Lester is all but gone. In the end, Lester reaches an ‘epiphany’ moment when he declines to have sex with Angela when he realizes that she’s actually a virgin. In this last moment, the emotional tone is particularly sweet and melancholic at the same time. In this scene, Angela too reaches enlightenment as well. She finally realizes that living by traditional notions of attractiveness will not give fufilment. In this moment, Lester and Angela both resolve their tensions that have haunted them from the start.
What strikes me about American beauty is the fact that there’s always something prowling beneath the surface. You can’t quite put a finger on it, but it’s false innocence cuts even deeper and it’s implicit messages are even more powerful. It is no wonder that American Beauty’s structure of suppression are embodied by its characters where desires are repressed. Moving away from the Lester Burnham family is the Fitts family where we see two polar opposites. Ricky Fitts(Wes Bentley), boyfriend of Lester daughter, is an eccentric. His uncomfortable demeanor belies his unique perspective. In one scene, he explains the beauty in a floating plastic bag. Colonel Fitts on the other hand, is regimental and militaristic. As you’ll see, Colonel Fitts is actually gay but represses this by being tough on himself and on his son. Fitts isn’t able to live with his own imperfections even until the end, where he becomes destructive and nilhilistic because of his own repressions.
In the end, American Beauty is a complex representation of the failures of the American middle class. Cinematography was brilliant as Conrad Hall used the lights and contrast to really reflect the tension in every scene. It’s one hell of a movie that attempts to discuss many themes all at the same time. Lester has found redemption at the end because he has finally resolved the ultimate conflict between beauty,desire and fufilment. Beauty is a quality that has been materialized and confined to restrictive notions. American Beauty satirizes this with great comic wit and subtle poignant jabs. It’s not too self-concerned with its message and subject matter. Rather, it’s most cutting points lie beneath the innocent surburbia exterior.