American Beauty is a fine film which demonstrates the mid life crisis a person goes through when his/her marriage is failing and an affair is entered into. It contains some typical embodiments of the American dream as well as some materialistic aspects which continue to dominate the plot like a leitmotif during the film. Obviously there are comparisons and contrasts as both parents played well by Kevin Spacey and Thora Birch, the latter in the role of the materialistic wife Jane. Ultimately Lester Burnham who is the main character in the film has an affair with a cheerleader friend of his neighbor and this is all preceded by considerable sexual fantasies where the rose petals which appear on the front of the film’s poster are a recurring motif. The intricacies of the film are further exacerbated by the tragic ending of suicide where Lester finally is at peace with himself
American Beauty as a failed American Dream
The contrast between Lester and his wife Carolyn cannot be too great even in their jobs. He is a depressed middle aged writer for magazines while she is an ambitious real estate broker who is intensely materialistic. Indirectly the film tells us that if you’re a writer, you do not have much chance of striking it rich but if you’re into real estate (more up market stuff) then you really can make the grade. Up to a point we have an American Dream which fails here as a couple which are supposed to be happy and even have a daughter, despise each other and loathe their lives although Carolyn is much more charged up when on the job. Interestingly, the neighbours who are much more bohemian than Lester and his family provide much more interest for the former and he ends up getting romantically attached with a much younger woman which is partially what spells his downfall.
The relationship with Lester’s daughter is also important. Initially she hates her parents for their bleak relationship and Lester’s involvement with Angela Hayes, the cheerleader friend of Jane is also instructive. Lester ends up blackmailing his boss at work and getting 60,000 dollars which he spends on a car and begins living the high life. All these moves are the embodiment of the American Dream gone sour with families splitting up and attempting to show that they don’t need themselves anymore.
Characters and plots
The main characters, Lester and Angela end up together towards the end of the film where they almost have sex but eventually it does not happen when Lester finds out that she is still a virgin. This part of the film is particularly poignant as it indicates a sort of coming together for Lester who realizes that he has lost everything and nothing will be the same again. Jane’s relationship with Ricky is also a spur to Lester to begin working out and also smoking marijuana, a ridiculous assertion for a middle aged man who cannot admit that he is on the wane. Carolyn’s affair with a wealthy businessman is a further spur to Lester to continue his dissolute life and eventually face reality. The character’s complex relationships and the plots and subplots are part and parcel of the film which continues to receive moderate to positive reviews in this sense. I particularly enjoy the final scene where the gunshot sound is heard and it appears that all is over, it is a very poignant episode which conveys failed dreams and utter hopelessness although the final note does offer some form of redemption.
Critical reactions to the film:
On the whole the film has been viewed positively although Wayne C Booth has argued that the film does defy any sort of interpretation. He also argues that there is an element of satire on what actually is rather wrong with American life especially the infidelity, drug taking and the constant slaving for money. Other critics such as Todd McCarthy have praised the cast consistently and reserve particular plaudits for Kevin Spacey who is seen as outstanding in the role of Lester. The film can also be seen as a mixture of love stories, all with their own particular gist and all turning rather sour in the end. McCarthy is intrigued by the parallels one can find in real human lives and as the film develops he begins to see everything in this light. Obviously the film is not perfect in that sense but it develops extremely well especially in the episodes where everything seems to be coming to a head but then eventually does not due to extraneous factors and a sequence of events.
Kenneth Turan and Gary Hentzi also have words of praise for the characters although the latter does acknowledge that some of them are stereotypes although the acting is something hich he holds in high regard also.
The directors have been rather unclear on their actual plot and script of the film even in post film interviews. What can definitely be said however is that the film has no real unifying influence but is rather a collection of plots and subplots which develop independently of one another but are also tied together too. Other commentators have noted excessive editing and different scenes with the end product showing a bit of a disjointed feel. However when the film is good, it ends up to be very good especially in the seminal scene between Lester and Angela towards the end.
Conclusion – American Beauty as real life theatre
American Beauty is a film which cannot leave you unmoved as it mirrors situations which can be found in real life and is rather close to reality. Although its main characters tend to be a bit exaggerated at times, the theme of finding love again after a failed marriage is perennially important throughout and one cannot really deny its effectiveness. There are moments in the film where emotion tends to get the better of everyone and one really feels that being rotten to the core is the embodiment of American life at the moment with all its rampant materialism and pent up emotions.
The word beauty here may be used contextually and is not always intrinsically consistent with the plot but there are obviously various types of beauty. The directors have managed to touch the hearts of many in this film which contains episode of high drama intermingled with those of a rather mundane nature. All is intertwined in a progressive social commentary on American life which is truly hard to beat and which will continue to thrill for many years to come.