Intro to Film: American Beauty Review

So, for my Intro to Film class we have to watch and review 6 movies, and i thought, “Why not shar my work once it’s been graded?” So, yeah, for the next few months, while i’m in class i’ll be sharing my class reviews with you guys. The first one up: American Beauty

American Beauty is a 1999 drama directed by Sam Mendes about a man named Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his 90’s suburbanite angst. As the film opens Lester is feeling undersexed, overworked and unappreciated by his family. He longs for more than the mundanity of Suburbia, and it would seem that he finds it when introduced to his daughter’s friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Lester soon finds himself reinvigorated, doing what he can to woo the young girl while also going after the other things he feels like owes him by now.
Lester Burnham is clearly the focal point of the movie. Not only is it booked ended with his naration, but he is also the only character with an arch. Sure, other characters change in the course of the film, but their changes are mostly based around finding people who mirror their own feelings on life and no longer feel isolated in their disillusionment. Lester actually goes on a journey in the film and he comes out of it a new man. The film starts with Lester feeling “sedated” in his life and unlike The Ramones, this isn’t something he wants in life. But once he hears Angela say she’d be willing to have sex with him if he had more muscles he instantly starts working out. Here he finds how easy it is for him to get the things he wants out of life and he starts living without inhibition. However, once he actually has Angela ready and willing, he can’t go through with the act because he is suddenly aware that she is not what he wanted. She may have been a muse of self-improvement, but she wasn’t what was going to make him happy and he understands this, ready to return to life with his family as a happier and more engaged man.
This is supported with the use of rose petrels in the film. This imagery could be a homage to 1941’s “Citizen Kane”: in that film the misty behind the phrase “rosebud” was Kane referring to the last thing that made him happy. It is possible to that the roses in “American Beauty” are playing on this. We first see roses at the films opening as Annette Bening’s Carolyn Burnham cutting roses while Lester narrates about how distant they’ve becomes. He is inside the house, miserable while she is outside cutting roses and happy. The next few times we see roses is when Lester is fantasizing about Angela. She removes her top and the rose pestles spill out, or she is in a bath filled with them. With each fantasy more petrels. But once he gets her he can’t take her. She’s not what he wants, and there are no roses. The last time we see roses, and in fact the only time we see Lester closes to any real ones in the film, is in his death seance. He has rejected his lust for Angela and sits down, happy in the mommies of days gone by, ready to rejoin his family as a better man, and in front of him as the roses his wife picked in the beginning of the movie.
American Beauty is a movie about what it means to be happy and how little the facade of happiness means. Lester’s wife has a motto about keeping up appearances, needing too look happy to be happy. But the viewer sees how her marriage is falling apart and how her own disappointment in her abilities leads to her breaking down and starting down a path of self destruction. Angela keeps talking about how there is nothing worse than being normal, but once confronted with a person she doesn’t understand she starts calling him a freak and doesn’t understand why her only friend would want to stay with him. But for all the effort she puts into her act of happiness and self assurance, once someone called her average she breaks down.
The only character who is truly happy throughout the film is Ricky Fitts, who is so overwhelmed by all the beauty in the world he doesn’t know what to do with it; and for his passion he is ostracized. While everyone wants to put up a charade of happiness, but facing the real thing makes everyone uncomfortable. This sentiment is mirrored by Lester dying as he becomes happy again for the first time in years.
The band Rush said in their song Subdivisions “…the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth”. So long as that remains true, American Beauty will have a place in the discussion of American film making, but after nearly 20 years the film is starting to show it’s age. While none of the acting is bad, a lot of the scenes from the younger members of the cast feels forced. It also doesn’t help that most of the cast stays firmly in the realm of the first dimension or that the film is an incredibly slow burn. The fact is, American Beauty doesn’t do anything that Fight Club didn’t do in the same year, and Fight Club remains a more engaging movie. As is, the two make good companion peaces; both able to make the same points but in different ways to suit the views performance of what amount of sleaze is considered acceptable.


My Grade: 20/20


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