Look Closer: The Decay of the American Dream in American Beauty

“My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.”

What a movie! American Beauty truly was the best film of 1999 in a year that is historic for it’s cinematic quality and depth. Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burham a man who finds himself in a subdued coma of a midlife crisis until he becomes obsessed with his daughter’s cheerleading friend Angela (Mena Suvari). He hates his job and feels the contempt of both his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch). We’re in suburban American at the end of the 1990’s, manicured yards, picket fenced homes, and happy jogging couples fill the landscape.

American Beauty captures the ennui and melancholy of banal suburban life. Lester is disconnected and feels largely dissatisfied with his life, finding the high point in his day being jerking off in the shower early in the morning. Spacey’s voice over brings us into first time Director Sam Mendes and Screenwriter Alan Ball’s world, guiding us as a man who’s already dead. Less than a year from now, Burham tells us, he’ll be dead. Carolyn is a domestic perfectionist while being a competitive realtor. She obsesses over selling one home so much she resorts to physically beating herself up, slapping her face repeatedly and calling herself a baby. The scene in question should have won Annette Bening an Academy Award which she was nominated for. In any other year but 1999, I believe the result would have been different, Hillary Swank gave one of the best performances of all time in Boys Don’t Cry and she walked away the winner. Jane, Lester and Carolyn’s sixteen year old daughter finds herself insecure, unsure, and a bit mixed up. She’s friends with Angela who talks about sex all the time and her modeling career. They both cheer for the school’s basketball team and it’s at their next game that Lester wakes from his midlife stupor. In a detailed and erotic fantasy vision, Lester imagines Angela doing a seductive dance and finally seeing rose petals when she exposes her chest. As the halftime dance number ends Lester comes out of his visual fantasy. He embarrassingly introduces himself after the game outside with his wife and daughter. Lester lingers for an uncomfortable amount of time and his daughter has to remind him that “Mom is waiting”. After all he had to miss the James Bond marathon playing on TNT.

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From this point on Lester is a completely different man. He blackmails and extorts his boss for $60,000.00 due to inside knowledge of a prostitute’s extended stay at the St. Regis hotel. His written out job duties and explanation is hilarious and every time I see it I’m reminded how I would want to quit a job I hate in the most satisfying way.

“My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men’s room so I can jerk off while I fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble Hell.”

Lester gets a job at a local fast food restaurant Mr. Smiley’s and informs the current manager to the extent of his expertise. Ricky Fitts (Wes Bently) and his parents have just moved into the house next to the Burhams. His father Frank (Chris Cooper) is a retired Marine Colonel and his Wife Barbara (Allison Janney) who barely speaks and mostly plays a solely subservient role. Ricky is shown constantly filming with his camera, spying on the Burhams having a blow up during dinner next door. One of the most interesting cinematic techniques is the purely visual story being told through the open windows of the Burhams and Fitt’s homes. The story being captured by the camera Ricky holds, as well as the camera showing the film American Beauty itself through the window into their homes. It’s a beautifully executed visual aesthetic which is only enhanced by the Thomas Newman score that haunts various scenes with melancholy. Another interesting fact about the production of American Beauty is that the script went through ten drafts and the original ending was greatly changed. Alan Ball who went on to create HBO’s Six Feet Under wrote the film’s screenplay and based a lot of Lester on himself. The themes of life dissatisfaction, death, existentialism, and the general malaise of daily life are all explored in both of these creations.

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Frank makes openly homophobic remarks to Ricky that he doesn’t accept homosexuality after meeting the two Jim’s, a wealthy gay couple (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards) that serve as the Fitt’s other neighbors. Ricky placates his father by saying it “makes me want to puke my fucking guts out.” Despite being creeped out by Ricky’s voyeurism Jane forms a strong bond with him as she drifts away from Angela, her shallow and deeply insecure friend. Lester while accompanying Carolyn to one of her realtor networking parties has one of the best interactions in the entire movie. Embarrassing his wife overly affectionate behavior and leaving the situation completely satisfied with himself. After making a self deprecating comment to a work competitor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) Carolyn tells Lester “Oh honey, don’t be weird.” Lester gives her a dead eye stare and delivers an amazing response. “Alright, honey, I won’t be weird. I’ll be whatever you want me to be.”  He then proceeds to walk up to Carolyn and kiss her in an extended way for maximum impact. Lester turns to Buddy and says “We have a very healthy relationship.” He then proceeds to walk away after saying he needs a drink. What a scene and it never fails to entertain me and send me over the edge with laughter.

Lester takes up weight lifting after eavesdropping on Angela jokingly telling Jane she’d fuck her Dad if he built up his arms. He starts  running, pot smoking, and listening to old records like Pink Floyd trying to rekindle his younger years when he felt alive. He trades in the family Toyota Camry for a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, the car he always wanted growing up idolizing his Cousin Tony’s possession.

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Carolyn meanwhile embarks on an affair with Buddy, who’s split from his wife. But she’s found out when she and Buddy go through a fast food drive through are discovered by Lester as he’s working his new job. She sits in her car for a long time after Buddy leaves after the embarrassing discovery, saying he has a potentially very expensive divorce coming up.

Spacey fills Lester with life, spirit, defiance, and vulnerability. He’s a flawed character for sure, lusting after a teenage girl who’s underage who he’s projected a fantasy onto. But he claims something back which he had lost, he gets his self respect back regardless of what happens to his marriage he has his identity back. When finally confronting his desire for Angela he realizes that all of those feelings were based on fantastical projections and the reality did not line up to that. But as we find out Angela is a girl filled with insecurities and the fear of being ordinary. Despite all of the attention she might receive or talk about receiving it’s largely her own projection due to feeling inadequate. Ricky sells Pot to Lester, it’s how he affords all of the electronic equipment lining his room. He spends more and more time with Jane as they become more intimate, showing her a plate with a Nazi emblem on it that his father collected and taking turns filming each other in a naked state.

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Frank is a controlling father who eventually assumes that Ricky is making his money by being a prostitute, playing on his own fear of homosexuality. He beats him soundly after Ricky refuses to deny that he’s a homosexual, seeing his father as a lost cause once he tells him he’d rather see him end up dead than be gay. As the final part of the film comes together the pouring rain brings everyone together. Carolyn drives home, repeating over and over that “I refuse to be a victim” with a 9MM pistol beside her. Frank Fitts, soaking wet and upset at his Son’s departure seeks out Lester for comfort, believing him to be gay. After a close hug, he attempts to kiss Lester who turns him away telling him he’s not gay. And everything becomes clear, that Frank really hates himself and all of his behavior comes into focus. He proceeds to shoot Lester in the head only moments later while he is reflecting on his life after all of the events that have come to transpire. The film starts by talking about death and it ends with the death of Lester Burnham. Who weaves a beautifully stated and substantive monologue that always leaves me a little teary eyed and feeling such gratitude to be alive. The ending monologue is quite moving and is among my favorite ever utilized in a cinematic feature film.  I think it’s a sort of incredible narrative accomplishment. Lester letting go of it all upon retrospect.

“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”

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2 thoughts on “Look Closer: The Decay of the American Dream in American Beauty

  1. Great reviews of one of my favorite movies! This came out when I was like…12 or 13, and when I saw it, I was hooked. It completely resonated with me, because my family was going through a divorce. Such. Brilliant. Work.

  2. This is such a great movie. I think you’re right about Annette Benning – films that deal with powerful issues like “Boys Don’t Cry” always have a way of trumping films like this come Oscars.

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