This film blows my mind, but not in the way you’d assume i.e. the way it did viewers and critics when released. Rather it evokes a reaction that no other film that I can think of does. See, it’s one thing to be unsure whether a film is good or not (‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – I loved it but seriously doubt its actual quality). It’s one, albeit rarer, thing to be unsure whether you like a film or not (‘The Accused’ – a great film I thoroughly recommend but can’t say I really enjoyed the viewing experience). It is another thing entirely though to be unsure how much you like a film. This is the conundrum Sam Mendes’s ‘American Beauty’ puts me in: I like this film, that I am sure…but how much and for what reason(s)? The tagline instructs you to ‘LOOK CLOSER’. Challenge accepted.
Most would describe the film as a drama, a genre which covers everything from ‘The Notebook’ to ‘Philadelphia’. Very helpful. Others might refer to it as a black comedy – a term which nowadays can be loosely translated as a funny film where someone dies and/or makes you use your brain and engage emotionally. This now I think about it is actually quite a fair way of describing ‘American Beauty’. In lieu of a synopsis I’ve decided it would be better to give a character list as, although some are far more prominent than others, fundamentally the film is about the hell that goes on behind the close doors of seemingly blissful suburbia. And I would argue there is no one plot, rather many separate ones that thread together to paint a collective picture of the American dream gone wrong.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey): a middle-aged man who has lost the will to live. Not in a suicidal way, more in a going-through-the-motions of crippling emptiness way. His mojo is abruptly awakened when he forms an intense infatuation with his 16 year old daughter’s best friend Angela. Don’t worry, it’s not creepy/paedophilic as long as his fantasies are portrayed incredibly artfully. This new surge of life inspires him to quit his creativity-numbing job and relive his teenage years of pot-smoking and serial masturbation. Believe it or not, this is the hero of the film.
Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening): Lester’s high strung, materialistic and secretly desperate wife. Her real estate business is floundering and her marriage is as dead as fried chicken. While Lester is beating off to his Lolita-esque* fantasy, she finds salvation in an affair with career-rival Buddy, seemingly having bought in to the notion – that if you’re a stressed out woman, a man’s penis is all you need to fix your problems – the media so enjoys force-feeding us.
Jane Burnham (Thora Birch): Lester and Carolyn’s daughter. At first glance an angsty, insecure teen but turns out to be more complex than that (LOOK…….CLOSER). She dislikes her mother and abhors her father (in fairness, he all but dry-humps her best friend right in front of her and accuses her of “being a real bitch just like her mother” when she has the audacity to ask him not to sleep with her underage best friend) She plays the plain, subservient friend when with Angela but allows her own uniqueness and beauty to flourish after forming a relationship with her rumoured-to-be-crazy neighbour Ricky.
Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari): the obscenely beautiful focus of Lester’s fantasy (which she encourages for all she’s worth). Much like Jane, Angela’s surface appearance in deceptive. Her vanity, self-assurance and attention-seeking ways cover up a secret terror of being ‘ordinary’.
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley): The Burnham’s neighbour and Jane’s classmate. Mysterious, poetic and perceptive…although probably not as much as he (or screenwriter Alan Ball) think. Having supposedly just got out of a mental institution, Ricky has moved back in with his parents (who would benefit from a stint in there as well to be honest), and is watched like a hawk by his tyrannical and obsessive father. Not closely enough though, as along with his unorthodox hobby of filming everything – from unsuspecting people to plastic bags blowing in the wind – he makes a fortune as a drug dealer.
Col Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper): Ricky’s aggressive, old-school, ex-marine, homophobic father. That’s really all there is to him…or so it seems. Blah look blah closer.
I know there’s other characters but I’ve covered the main ones and hopefully in doing so conveyed the numerous themes and strands that run throughout the film. There is no villain in the film. Or rather, every character has hateful qualities. Perhaps one could argue each character is their own antagonist, just as we all are in life. Or maybe materialism and the illusion is the true villain. I don’t really care to be honest. There are so many theories and interpretations you could apply to this film, a popular one being ‘pretentious crap’. This I disagree with. For me, pretentious is something that thinks it’s saying a whole load of meaningful stuff through symbolism and metaphor but in fact is cryptic, indulgent garbage. ‘American Beauty’ though artful, is explicit and accessible. It’s imagery has all the subtlety of the Jesus allusions in ‘Man of Steel’ for God’s sake.
That’s not to say it isn’t laughable at some points. It is an intentionally funny film but there’s a few times I snickered for the wrong reasons during my recent viewing. The plastic bag scene is a little eye roll-inducing now, as is Lester’s epilogue. And I lost it over Lester’s “it’s just a couch!” outburst at Carolyn. It just seemed so uncalled for – the poor lady had a point, it was a damn nice couch and he was going to spill beer on it.
That said, the film definitely packs most of it’s emotional punches well. Carolyn’s private meltdown after failing to sell the house is extraordinarily uncomfortable and saddening to watch. The final fifteen minutes of the film are excellent, I’d even go so far as to use words like exquisite and haunting in some moments. All the actors are faultless, and I must say, there’s a tonality to this film – dark yet uplifting, haunting but hilarious, relatable but twisted – that I’ve never seen captured in any other.
How much do I like this film? I can’t give an official measurement. “Rather a lot” is about as specific as I can get. All I can conclude is that I like it for all the right reasons and all the wrong reasons. When it’s good, it’s fantastic film-making in it’s truest sense, when it’s bad, it’s still brilliantly entertaining. No doubt some will find my personal reading of the film inaccurate or flawed. If this is the case, maybe you just need to LOOK CLOSER. Or write your own review. Whatever. One thing this film has taught me is that Lester’s “haters gon’ hate” attitude is crucial to living your life happily.
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*Lester Burnham is an anagram for ‘Humbert Learns’