There was a brief period in the ‘90’s where the film industry was obsessed with the idea of nonconformity; the concept of men trapped in the depressing, never-ending pit of despair that is the infamous cubicle. You know what I mean, The Matrix, Fight Club, and Office Space all centered on this subject and, coincidently, they all were released during that same period which we call 1999. It may have been the passing of the millennium that was getting to our heads a bit, making people—and screenwriters—wonder what the hell they’ve been doing with their lives and pondering if they should, maybe, do more. It’s an honest question, and it’s also a fairly important one to ask yourself; “Are you happy?” That’s the question that’s spawned a million mid-life crises’. There’s nothing worse than settling for the ordinary, right?
American Beauty is a film that can rest right up with the other three films I just mentioned; I may even call it the biggest offender. Of course, I’m not saying “offender” in a negative manner, I’m just saying that this is the film with the heaviest handed message, besides Fight Club, arguably. American Beauty is actually one of the closest things I’ve seen to modern, American suburbia. It’s not simply about a man who no longer finds his life motivating and wishes for something more, but about anger, self-destruction, the loss of innocence, the breaking apart of families, and, most importantly, the misinterpretation of love and beauty.
Kevin Spacey plays the elusive, monotonous Lester Burnham; a man who is, quite simply, unhappy; so unhappy that you even have to remind him to be happy, like in the scene where his wife tells him to “try and be happy” while they’re attending his wife’s business party. He’s the kind of person Tyler Durden would attract. I can see Lester Burnham releasing his aggression in the ring underneath a bar in town by beating other “unhappy” men to a pulp. I’m surprised he didn’t join a fight club in this movie; he’d fit in just fine. Then there’s his equally troubled wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening). She’s exactly what I’d expect a woman married to a man like Lester to be like. For a lot of the movie, she looks exhausted and a bit tormented, probably from the hell that is her home life. You can tell she attempts to be optimistic, like in the scene where we see her cleaning up a house she is attempting to sell (she’s a real-estate broker) while singing the words, “I’m going to sell this house today” over and over again. I could almost see the blue birds coming to help her out. We do then see that it’s only skin-deep when, at the end of the day, she hasn’t sold the house and she breaks down in tears and begins to hit and tell herself to shut up.
Thora Birch plays their teenage daughter, Jane. She’s basically your stereotypical teenage girl: angry, self-conscious, and brimming with angst. She’s even saving up for breast implants that she clearly does not need. I don’t see either of her parents saying anything about that. She’s friends with pretty girl Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) who believes the whole world revolves around her. She is aspiring to be a model and craves attention, so much so that she begins to quietly flirt with Lester after it is very clear that Lester is infatuated with her. She says that ever since she turned 12, people haven’t been able to take their eyes off of her. Rather interesting statement, if I say so myself.
This then brings us to Rickey Fitts (Wes Bentley). Rickey is the only man who has ever not paid attention to Angela, and she notices saying, “He didn’t even, like, look at me once.” This is because he is captivated by Jane. We first see this intriguing character after he moves in next door to Jane and we catch a glimpse of him filming her from the shadows. We then find out that he films practically everything from dead birds lying on the ground to a homeless woman on the side of the street that froze to death. He says, “When you see something like that, it’s as if God is looking right at you, and if you’re careful, you can look right back.” The most beautiful thing he’s ever filmed was footage of a plastic bag blowing in the wind and he shows Jane this video in a very emotional scene, saying that it helps him remember all the beauty that’s in the world and sometimes it’s so overwhelming that he just can’t take it. I wonder if this was what the creative minds such as Charlie Kaufman or Shane Carruth were like as teens. I wouldn’t be surprised.
There is a line said near the beginning of the film that goes a little something like this: “Everything that’s meant to happen does, eventually.” This was not my first viewing of this film, so I knew what was coming, and I found that line to be especially haunting because of my knowing. The line brings up interesting concepts such as determinism and whether or not the characters in the film deserve to experience the misfortunes that follow. For me, I believe that all of the events are just pieces of the big puzzle. Nobody in this film is necessarily a villain, but just several lost souls, looking for answers in all the wrong places, and the answers they do find just fill them with false pride. Isn’t there a saying that says, “There’s always pride before the fall?”
I don’t think this movie could have been cast any better. Thora Birch seems so natural in her role, like this is just the filming of her everyday life; Annette Bening controls the screen with every scene she’s in, giving a dark and sympathetic performance; Wes Bentley became his character, showing confidence I’ve never seen before and I never doubted him once; Chris Cooper gives a relentless performance as Rickey’s overbearing, war vet father as does Allison Janney as his psychologically struggling mother. Then there’s Kevin Spacey who gives his finest performance and, quite possibly, one of the greatest performances of all-time. His transformation, triggered by his first encounter with Angela, is so believable and so enthralling. He begins the film as a man who’s high point of his day were the few minutes he had pleasuring himself in the shower before work; at the end of the film, he’s buying a Pontiac Firebird and smoking pot while working out. The pot, he gets from Rickey who deals it, secretly, so not to allow his father to find out. He was caught once and his life has never been the same.
There’s something very diabolical resting at the core of this film, like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. It begins fairly calm, showing us the daily lives of these people and there’s nothing too strange going on. Scenes including the Burnhams eating dinner all together with Lester asking Jane how her school day was—much like what my father has done so many times before—and one with the Fitts all eating breakfast together with Rickey asking his dad, who is contently reading his newspaper, what’s new in the world. It gives the film a false sense of peace that, from then on, is the polar opposite of what you’re going to get. As the film progresses and as push comes to shove between many of the characters, the themes get darker and the intentions more hostile. The first time I saw this, I was surprised to see a scene near the end where Rickey’s father begins to suspect Rickey is hiding something in a series of sitcom level misunderstandings, but it never took me out of the film. It seemed to fit, and that’s thanks to the outstanding direction from Sam Mendes, which he won an Academy Award for. He directs with a ferocity that is impossible to match, melding each scene so perfectly into the next. By the end of the film, you’ll be gasping for air. By the time you get to the end, you’ll have trouble keeping track of the madness. There’s so much going on; all this chaos as we flash between each character while the music grows more aggressive until, at one single moment, everything stops dead in their tracks. One could call it “brilliant.”
One could call the ending to this film quite happy; one could call it quite sad; I prefer the former. It’s an ending that reminds me of the ending to one of my favorite films Donnie Darko. Either way you look at it, Lester Burnham was redeemed at the end. I don’t want to say too much so not to give anything away, but there is a moment in the film that always makes me smile. Lester is talking to Angela about Jane. He asks her how she is; is she happy? Angela answers with something like “I think so. She thinks she’s in love.” Lester then cracks the tiniest smile, but an emotional one all the same. With that little smirk, you can see that he understands his errors and has finally come to terms with his fears of conformity and being lost, because he’s really not and never was. Angela then asks him something that he hasn’t heard someone ask him in a very, very long time. She asks, “How are you?” Lester responds, “I’m great.”