American Beauty: A Review

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley

Director: Sam Mendes
This is one of the few movies which cannot be put into a particular genre; serving as a comedy, drama, and a satire, there are dozens of ways in which the viewer can interpret it.

The film is narrated by the deceased Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who is telling the viewers the story of the last year of his life.

Staying in a suburb of an unknown city, 42 year old Lester’s life is going nowhere. He is stuck in a job for the last 15 years as an advertising executive, with no prospects of advancement nor any options of finding a better job. He is both physically and emotionally distant from his materialistic, wannabe and pretentious wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and finds no place in his introvert daughter Jane’s (Thora Birch) life, who in fact hates both her parents. He is neither respected nor loved by either his daughter or wife, both of whom abhor him, Carolyn, for his lowly prospects and Jane, who thinks that he is just disgusting. Elsewhere too, he is practically invisible. Dinnertime for him is an occasion to be humiliated by Carolyn (who, most of the times is just venting out the frustration of a bad day’s work as a real estate agent on him) and cold shouldered by Jane.

Lester is asked to write a self appraisal to show the management as to why he shouldn’t be laid off by his company, which is “looking to cut a few corners”.

Suddenly, Lester’s world is turned upside down when he sees Jane’s extrovert and flashy friend Angela (Mena Suvari). He instantly starts lusting over her and her sexually liberal personality makes him fantasize about her all the time. Angela is aware of this and cruelly encourages him, whenever she meets him.

Meanwhile, a new family has moved next door; retired Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), a homophobic disciplinarian with a traumatized wife and a psychologically disturbed son Ricky (Wes Bentley), whose has a weird hobby of filming everything.

He takes an instant liking to Jane and follows her around. He also starts filming everything in her house and once accidently films a nude Lester working out. She abuses him openly but is secretly pleased that someone is attracted to her.

Unknown to his family, Vicky makes a living as a marijuana seller, and he soon strikes friendship with Lester at a party thrown by Carolyn’s business rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), where Lester is feeling alienated and disgusted by Carolyn’s fake behavior. He soon becomes Ricky’s regular client. Frank silently disapproves of this bonding between his son and Lester, as he suspects them to be involved in some kind of a relationship, owing to misunderstanding on his part. Lester smokes pot and works out regularly, becoming a confident and outspoken person who doesn’t care about Carolyn’s opinions anymore.

Things take an irrevocable turn the same day, as Lester, fuelled by his newly acquired confident personality, quits his job but not before blackmailing his company for a year’s salary with benefits (he knows about a director availing escort services with the company’s funds). He takes up a job as an attendant at a drive in restaurant to have a job with the least possible responsibilities. Carolyn starts an affair with Buddy Kane . Ricky and Jane begin a relationship.

Lester finally stands up to Carolyn for the first time in his life. He knows that all his attempts to find any place in the lives of either his wife or daughter are useless and the least he can do is have a happy life for himself. Jane even requests Ricky (not knowing about his friendship with Lester) to kill him (this is the first scene of the film, one that adds to the suspense).

The last day of Lester’s life dawns. He and Angela flirt with each other much to Jane’s disgust. He signals to Ricky as he leaves for school to call him which catches Frank’s eye. He decides to investigate by searching Ricky’s room. He finds the video of a nude Lester working out in Ricky’s camcorder and deduces that his son and Lester are in a homosexual relationship. Carolyn and Buddy drive into the same drive in restaurant where Lester works, and he coolly serves them even after catching the two red handed. Carolyn is severely hurt by Lester’s indifference and Buddy promptly breaks off the relationship, leaving Carolyn distraught. She is shown to load her gun while driving back home.

Back home, Lester calls Ricky as his marijuana has run out. Frank spies on them through the window and mistakes their meeting for a sexual encounter. He beats up Ricky severely and demands an explanation. Ricky, already sick of his overbearing father, lies to him that he works as a prostitute. Frank throws him out of the house. Ricky goes to Lester’s house and asks Jane to leave with him. She readily agrees, but Angela who is present there tries to discourage her and starts to fight with her.

Frank visits Lester and asks him about his wife’s whereabouts. He replies that his marriage is just a sham, thereby turning Frank’s doubts into belief. Suddenly, he attempts to kiss Lester, thereby revealing that his homophobic personality is a mere cover for his true self. Lester pulls him off and Frank leaves without another word.

On returning to the house, Lester finds an upset Angela crying on the stairs. One thing leads to another and Angela is soon in his arms. His dream of having the object of his desire is almost complete when Angela reveals that she is nothing like her projected slutty image and is actually a virgin. Lester suddenly sees her as a daughter and realizes that he has been wrong in lusting after her. He embraces her like a child. He is pleased to know from her that Jane is in love. Angela then excuses herself for sometime leaving a content Lester, whose life has now come to a full circle. He feels no remorse but only gladness at spurning the object of his desire. He picks up a family photograph of everyone together and gazes contently into it. A barrel of a gun appears behind his head as the camera moves away. A shot is heard and his blood is splattered on the wall. Ricky and Jane come down from their room and find Lester’s body in a pool of blood.

The deceased Lester in a final voiceover says that his entire life had flashed before him at the moment of his death. His dying thoughts revolve around his childhood memories, Carolyn and Jane. He feels no regrets and finds it hard to be angry with what happened with him when there is so much beauty in the world. He is grateful for every moment of his short and stupid life. He concludes by saying that the viewer may not understand a word that he’s saying, but someday he will.

Look closer, the film’s caption says. Everything is not what it appears to be. The Burnham’s house is full of smiling and happy family photographs but the atmosphere in the house is anything but that. The prosperous looking neighbourhood is eerily silent, whether it is the sorrowful atmosphere in the Burnham household or macabre in the Fritts one. Beneath the smiling faces, there is just contempt and insecurity. The film can be interpreted in innumerable ways- as a demythifier of happy suburbian middle class life in America (or anywhere else), as an attempt to state life’s meaning, as a person’s wish to break free out of a mundane, materialistic existence and so on. It is revealed again and again that there is more to life than trivial issues and status symbols like a particular job or social standing.

The film also shows how everyone practically lives life as a lie.

Carolyn’s fake self esteem is just a cover to hide her dissatisfaction and hatred for her job. Frank’s homophobia is a cover to hide his own homosexual tendencies. Angela’s dirty talk and loose image is just a pathetic attempt to be seen as a glam doll. Jane while projecting herself to be aloof suffers from low self esteem and feels jealous of Angela. The only person content and happy in the end is Lester, despite the fact that he has to face a cruel and abrupt end.

The film was the biggest hit of the year, raking in almost 2400 percent ROI. Sam Mendes couldn’t have asked for a better debut in Hollywood, with his film sweeping all the major awards, including five Oscars, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Film. His direction is flawless, as he peels away the pompous layers of each character to reveal their vulnerable selves. He uses symbols like rose petals to depict Lester’s flowery obsession with Angela and rain to show impending death. But his direction stands out in the fact that he has avoided sugarcoating or giving the film a happy ending, in order to give the real message of the film that is ultimate freedom comes at an ultimate price.

Everyone in the cast is brilliant, and the film belongs to Kevin Spacey. As Lester Burnham, he has portrayed beautifully a very vulnerable and a very ordinary person prone to weakness and temptation, but a good human being nonetheless who only wants  a more dignified and fulfilling life. Annette Bening is excellent as the materialistic and superfluous Carolyn, and Chris Cooper is brilliant as Frank Fritts. The same is applicable to the rest of the cast.

There is beauty all over this film. Watch. And look closer.

Ankur Jayawant

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