Every once in awhile a film comes along to give you perspective. Not necessarily the entire picture, but just a different way of looking at things. American Beauty doesn’t always know what it wants to be, at times simply telling a story, giving us the freedom to interpret it as we may. A story with depth and complexities that are hard to comprehend how they even got down onto a page in the first place, yet somehow the film’s lack of realization is what makes it so real.
We open up in medias res with a teenage girl, Jane (Thora Birch), talking to a video camera about how she wants her father killed, to which the man on the other side of the camera replies, “Okay.” We then cut to a narration by Kevin Spacey, who we find out, plays Jane’s father, Lester, an aimless and depressed magazine salesman who hates his job and his marriage. He’s simply going about his life mindlessly with no goal. Lester states bluntly that within the year, he’s going to die. Over the course of the story, we try to figure out who will be the culprit, although that aspect of the film is of secondary importance.
Even though American Beauty unabashedly shows the perspectives of everyone in the film, Lester is our true protagonist. His journey has us the most invested since it’s the most intriguing. He befriends the neighbor kid, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is a confident, artistic, drug dealer with an ultra-conservative father (Chris Cooper) who beats him to keep him in line.
Ricky is dating Jane, who, despite being on the cheerleading squad, is somewhat of an outcast. Ricky finds the true beauty in her, even though she strives for a more superficial kind of beauty. Amidst all the magnified chaos around them, Ricky and Jane, and their love story, are so raw and dark, and somewhat real.
Inspired by a talk with Ricky, Lester subtly tries to rekindle his youth, trying to find a little of that optimistic magic he left behind all those years ago. He decides to quit his job to get one with less responsibility working at a fast food restaurant. Regressing to his teenage years–a point in his life where he could see his whole life ahead of him–is the very perspective he needs to reattain in order to find peace.
It’s funny because now that Lester is working in a fast food restaurant, society would pin him as goalless or imprisoned. But in fact, it’s this low-stress job that enables him to fully live and find himself, along with the lost happiness he had been searching for. He starts exercising, making friends, and is finally able to relax. Don’t be fooled, it’s not his desired result that makes him content, but the fact that these distractions and goals allow him to discover what’s really important. His new “career” has brings him hope, and he’s no longer goalless or imprisoned. He’s free. His old job, which would have had society see him as successful and driven, actually prevented him from having drive and success. Lester finds no comfort in his comfortable life, instead vies for a more spontaneous one.
Most characters in the movie reject societal norms, but on the other hand there’s Ricky’s father, Frank, a retired US Marine colonel who believes in rules of society. Neither viewpoint is exactly normal. But the point is to find where the two extremes meet. Not doing whatever you want, but also challenging the status quo. Challenging doesn’t always mean changing, but sometimes when you question the way things are, you find a more abstract and divergent perception. To a certain degree, we need a sense of conformity, and this film recognizes that as well.
Though Lester is far from a saint, his heart is usually in the right place. He learns not to hate himself, which in turn helps him love others more truly–but the potential for this was always there. He just had to find it.
Lester’s wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is a real estate agent who has their entire household under her thumb. Lester can’t stand up to her without getting belittled, and Jane is ridiculed about not being perfect in order to make Carolyn feel better about her own failures. Lester comes to reject the materialism that Carolyn is so very much obsessed with because she thinks it makes her appear successful. But Lester’s journey is to put aside facades and tear down the Potemkin Village that Carolyn has built.
American Beauty is a drama with black comedy nuances. It’s a film that embraces transparency with the audience, though certain performances can be a little too on-the-nose. Birch and Mena Suvari, who plays her friend Angela, are too over the top at times, unable to properly wrangle the delicate tone of the film. And though Spacey and Bening give exaggerated performances too, they’re able to perfectly hone in the movie’s ironic sensibilities.
From start to finish American Beauty is nearly perfect, faltering only once, allowing a slightly implausible miscommunication and misunderstanding to ultimately catalyze the climax. Nevertheless, this instance could be realistic by some stretch of the imagination. And I don’t have too much of an issue with it, considering the scenario falls in line with the already-established character it involves, and its fable-like trappings.
The nearly dystopian atmosphere cultivated within this movie attempts to juxtapose the true beauty in the world. It shows us how beauty is in how we perceive things–a trite sentiment, sure, but how that notion is emphasized here takes on almost spiritual qualities.