Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is a movie I’d highly recommend to anyone who is as jaded and cynical about modernity as I am. Frankly, I can’t recall another film with more delightfully fatuous caricatures. But it’s so much more than that. Indeed, the film’s mordant satire can belie its depth if the viewer doesn’t heed the tag line’s admonition to “look closer.” On the surface, the film is a caustic retrospective on the corporate greed of the 80s and 90s that helped erect the plastic façade of yuppieville USA and fuels the vacuous ambitions, nihilism, narcissism, and materialism of its inhabitants. Yet to be satisfied with so facile an interpretation would be to fall prey to the very superficiality that the film decries. As the title suggests, the film exhorts us to reflect on the simpler things in life that make us happy. This is the beautiful aspect of existence, enabling us to escape from the prison of everyday routine and from the bourgeois obsession with keeping up appearances.
The film is narrated from the first-person perspective of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a forty-something trapped in a dead-end middle-management position and a loveless marriage. Lester’s acquisitive wife Carolyn (Annette Benning), by contrast, is an upwardly mobile real estate agent who is disgusted with his lack of ambition, which she sees as standing in the way of her “projecting an image of success.” Caught in the middle of their constant bickering is their daughter Janie (Thora Birch), a “typical teenager”—sullen, insecure, and distant. Just as Lester’s midlife crisis is reaching the boiling point, he becomes infatuated with Janie’s best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), sparking a number of sensual dream sequences involving the film’s celebrated rose imagery.
Interestingly, the film doesn’t begin with Lester’s voiceover but in medias res with Janie as she is being captured on video by her boyfriend Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a marijuana dealer whose favorite pastime is to use a camcorder to take a snapshot of life’s most beautiful moments. Ricky has his own demons to contend with. His dad Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), an ex-marine who rules over his family with draconian discipline, is a vocal homophobe (and, as one might expect, also turns out to be a repressed homosexual).
Ricky is the film’s chief protagonist and moral compass, his video-rolling a metaphor for how the world might be seen from God’s perspective. The film’s iconic moment comes when Ricky shows Janie a video of a bag blowing in the wind. Utterly transfixed by it, he explains to Janie that it is so beautiful that he feels his heart about to burst when he looks at it. But what is this beauty? In the context of the film, the bag appears to represent the vicissitudes of fortune, the personal choices one confronts as part of everyday existence. Though these choices are uncertain and therefore daunting, the fact that we can’t control them is what makes life interesting and beautiful.
It’s this tone of philosophical reflection that gives American Beauty its unique edge. The movie is not without its flaws, though, starting with some of the characterization. While Spacey’s wryly sarcastic tongue suit’s Lester’s character, Bening’s (Carolyn’s) histrionics and Suvari’s (Angela’s) lubricity seem a bit over the top. Much of the latter’s sexually charged dialogue could have been pared down without any loss of meaning.
It can also be a dangerous game to toy with the take-home message as much as the film did. To be sure, it’s all too easy to dwell on the movie’s superficial aspects–the emptiness of materialism; the foibles of corporate yesmen; the shallowness of lust. But to do so would be to fail to recognize that American Beauty is using caricature as a technique to shame us into admitting and reflecting on our natural vanity and pettiness. Whether you laugh, cry, or squint, American Beauty will certainly get you to think.
Joe’s Grade: A-