The Best of Pictures: American Beauty (1999), by Josh Long

19 Feb

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Alan Ball
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch

1999 was a pretty heavy-hitting year for American movies. Several instant classics came out that year: The Sixth Sense, The Insider, The Matrix, Magnolia – and then there was American Beauty. A clear front-runner leading up to the ceremony, American Beauty was quite an off-beat choice for the Academy. Sure, there were a lot of great performers in it, and it was a character heavy drama, which usually got Oscar’s attention. But the storyline was anything but normal Best Picture fare.The plot is centered around middle-aged, suburban everyman Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). He’s in a dead-end job with a smarmy younger boss, his wife Carol (Annette Bening) doesn’t respect him, and his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) thinks he’s a loser. And by all worldly standards, he is. When he meets Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) he develops an unhealthy obsession with her, but this is the catalyst that it takes for him to turn his life around. He goes on a warpath of self-actualization that seems to bring him fulfillment, but ultimately ends tragically.

Upon re-watching this film, I didn’t expect it to have held up this well for over ten years 1. But the message is still meaningful, the dialogue still crackles, and the portrait of suburban American life is still pretty accurate. Lester Burnham’s struggle is one that the middle class American male can identify with. He has a nice house, in a good neighborhood, a family, a regular job – and yet he still isn’t happy. He has everything that the average American would want for a “comfortable” lifestyle. So why is he miserable? This is what the movie attempts to explore. There’s also a “whodunit” aspect to the film, as several things early in the film point to the fact that Lester is going to die, maybe even be murdered. This raises the stakes in the film, leaving an air of suspense lingering throughout.

Most of the acting in the film is fantastic. Spacey (who won Best Actor), Bening, and Chris Cooper all turn in marvelous performances. The characters are, for the most part, layered enough to keep us invested in them. The possible exception is the character of Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) 2. Ricky is the new next-door neighbor who video tapes everything, sells pot, and hides it from his strict military father (Chris Cooper). He’s built in as a necessary plot motivator, but his character isn’t grounded enough to hold up. In 1999 he may have seemed thoughtful and edgy to a teen-aged audience, but viewing now he seems unbelievable. The movie makes him out to be a hero because he has a different perspective on the world, but he’s too much of an over eloquent caricature. It’s as if screenwriter Alan Ball failed at trying to channel J.D. Salinger – this is less the way Salinger would write Holden Caulfield, and more the way Holden Caulfield might write himself.

The film drew fire from some because of the sexual tension implied between Lester and the teen-aged Angela. To be fair, the tension isn’t just implied. There is a lot of sexually explicit dialogue, some nudity, and several scenes where Lester fantasizes about Angela. It’s content that might be a turn-off for some, especially for Christian viewers. Still, these scenes are in service of themes worth exploring.

Angela represents, and ultimately embodies, everything that Lester wants, but doesn’t have. She’s youthful and impulsive, like Lester once was. Her attitude inspires him to get back to his roots, listen to rock music from the 70s 3, get high with the neighbor kids, and quit his job, just because he doesn’t like it. He starts to work out, in hopes to have the kind of body that would attract Angela. As the film draws us in, we’re right there with him for most of it. We cheer when he tells off his evil boss, and when he buys the car he’s always wanted because he can. But there’s another phase. Eventually, this new life doesn’t seem much better than what Lester had before. He’s got as many (if not more) problems, his wife and daughter still hate him, and he’s ultimately going nowhere.

When (through somewhat contrived events) Angela offers herself up to him, he has an important moment. She self-consciously admits to him that, for all her big talk, she’s a virgin. Lester suddenly sees her as a real person, not a sexual conquest. This is the first moment in the movie that he seems to actually care about another person, and the change is obvious immediately. He doesn’t sleep with Angela; instead his fatherly instincts kick in, and he gets her a glass of water and a sandwich. The entire film he’s been thinking of himself, and “following his heart.” 4 He’s seeking worldly pleasures, but ultimately realizes that you can’t live a happy life if you’re only serving yourself. Unfortunately, it’s only in the last moments of his life that he has this epiphany.

If you’re a Christian, you may also have some issues with the way the film approaches homosexuality. It does condone homosexuality, but that isn’t really a major theme, and if there’s any message being pushed, it’s tolerance of homosexuals. I should hope that isn’t an issue with Christian viewers, since we’re clearly called to show God’s love to everyone. There is, however, the implication that most homophobic people are gay themselves. It’s not clear that the filmmakers are saying this is always the case, but through Chris Cooper’s character, I think we’re meant to get that idea. Still, Cooper’s character is another interesting reflection of the general theme – he’s another character stuck inside a traditional suburban life, thinking mainly of himself, and struggling for control.

I’ll admit, my favorite movie of 1999 is probably Magnolia, but American Beauty is a good film, and has a lot to offer viewers. If you keep your mind keen, you’ll see how Lester is just as lost as a loser Dad as he is as a go-getting free spirit. Hopefully we can all see the vanity of his self-fulfilling efforts, and learn from his mistakes.

1. As of now, we’re almost ten years from the actual Oscar ceremony.

2. I might also say that the character of Carolyn isn’t given enough. She seems to become the antagonist in many situations, almost never given a chance to do anything good. I felt like the movie paints her in too much of a negative light, using her for Lester to vent his frustrations. Lester is the bad husband as much as she is the bad wife, and I feel like the film could have done more to show us that. Admittedly, other viewers have had entirely different reactions to her character, so response may differ to the person. One could also argue that the ending gives her some vindication.

3. I love 60s-70s rock, so I rock along with Lester to The Guess Who, the Who, some Bob Dylan, all good stuff.

4. I’ve always found it interesting that society (and often Hollywood) says “follow your heart,” when the Bible says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9).

One Response to “The Best of Pictures: American Beauty (1999), by Josh Long”

  1. Jason February 22, 2010 at 9:40 pm #

    Great review. Favorite line – "…this is less the way Salinger would write Holden Caulfield, and more the way Holden Caulfield might write himself."
    Very accurate. The dialogue is the film's weakest aspect, but you're right the acting, directing, and overall filmmaking excellence make it a story worth investing in.

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