Meet Lester Burnham. Lester is an ordinary guy who has both everything and nothing to lose; the ideal archetype for anyone of any age to connect with. Over two hours, Lester tells us about his recent memories, starting with a disturbing videotape of his troubled daughter wishing that he were dead, then transitioning into a heaven’s view of his neighborhood, where he says he’ll for certain be dead after a year. He spends the rest of this time telling us about his failure of an existence where the highlight of his day is masturbating in the shower. As well as this opening sets things off, his view from heaven is probably not the best way to tell the story, due to its overly glamorous view of death.
Regardless of the odd view on death, Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, Skyfall) and screenwriter Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) project their hauntingly true take of the 20th Century American dream onto the screen. Their fantasy thrown into reality challenges us to look past the stereotypes of success and blandness and consider what makes an American Beauty.
Together, this directing and screenwriting team takes us through Lester’s story and the people he’s lost touch with despite living in the same house with them for years. Every individual in his story, including his workaholic wife, troubled daughter, and the new neighbors next door, has a testament to tell. Lester’s wife Carolyn sits on the throne of the matriarchal household, keeping it neat as a pin, as the living embodiment of what America is living for. Annette Bening (Being Julia, The Kids are All Right) gives it her all in depicting how the materialistic mindset of this woman results in a blatantly phony presence. Lester’s daughter Jane loathes the idea of being ordinary, which she seems to embody with her gothic eyeliner. So who better to be her only friend than the perfectly popular Angela Hayes?
Which is unfortunate, as Angela becomes the answer to Lester’s midlife crisis when he first lays eye on her. He is mesmerized by her Barbie-doll perfection, and even goes as far as unclothing her in his mind, cloaking her only with rose pedals. These mesmerizing views of beauty will make you wonder if it’s okay to be in awe of the stunning visions of pedophilia, which oddly enough works to the questioning of the average American’s troubled psychology, both on screen and within oneself.
It’s even stranger considering that this is a typical everyday household we find pedophilia active within. That friends, is what American Beauty does so effectively. As indicated by a series of family photos plastered around the house yet hidden from our view, this two-income family is not truly happy like the old days. Once the wallpaper to their achievement is peeled back, we see nothing but garbage. Lester is bullied by his much-younger-than-him boss, pressured to keep himself in the advertising business by his ball-and-chain of a wife. Then at the end of each nine-to-five, he has to survive the out-of-place Lawrence Welk tunes that juxtapose the true nature of their family dinners.
That is, he no longer feels that ball-and-chain once his lust for Angela inspires him to relive the days of his youth. Thus, he picks up bench-pressing, acquires pot from the neighbor next door, listens to Pink Floyd, and even quits his high-paying job to flip burgers like in his youth. It may seem here like he’s finally found true happiness in the American dream, but has he? Well, not until he’s made his way between the blonde teenager’s legs will he finally know if he’s achieved success.
It sounds like a wasted downfall indeed, but Lester may just as well be the only one in his neighborhood who is not stemming off of lies. Every single person in this film is an entirely different character than what they want others to believe, and it’s only from behind an obscured window view where we get to know them despite their lies.
As dense as this detailed creation is by an underrated director, this view of the American middle class could have benefited with more citizens of international backgrounds to diversify the black-and-white view of reality that Mendes and Ball are fixed upon.
But for what we get of these selfish, wasted lives, they prove the danger of getting high on the impulses of lust. It’s through the not-so-ordinary lives of not-so-ordinary people that we understand the danger of trying to be unordinary. Even more so, we should not be so quick to judge others based on what they allow us to see. We just need to look closer.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!
Dey, Abhineet. AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999). Digital image. DebooWorks. WordPress, 16 Dec 2014. Web. <https://debooworks.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/american-beauty-1999/>.