Personal Favorites: American Beauty

Sam Mendes’s American Beauty has apparently emerged as the film that won’t go away on this site. But considering our immediate reaction to it 4 yrs ago, I can’t say I’m surprised. I’ve already written about it in “My Watersheds: Sam Mendes” and my first post, “A Beautiful Example.” Brennan has pointed it out in “Must Watch: Drama and Screenwriting.” I don’t want to rehash what I’ve already talked about, but I find it rewarding to try to put into words my connection with it, even though I know I can’t fully. Again, this film exhibits perfection in every area of the craft: the subtle acting, the haunting score, the thematically appropriate costumes and set design, the aesthetically pleasing cinematography that services the film and never draws attention to itself, etc. The voiceover, particularly in the final few minutes, is delivered with perfection by Kevin Spacey, blending sardonic wit with peaceful affection. His cadence sends chills up my spine. I’ve already talked about the famous “plastic bag” scene, and of course there’s Annette Bening’s brief but nakedly emotional breakdown early on in the film, after which she puts her face back together and walks away. It’s an amazing example of the struggle behind a façade, the torturous gap between what one wants to be, what one attempts to project to the world, and what one actually is (“In order to be successful, one must portray the image of success at all times”). Also, I love Lester’s final moments when Angela asks him how he is. Spacey’s subtle reaction is one of my favorite pieces of acting, as he thinks about it before saying “I’m fine,” then he repeats the line. It’s the most freeing delivery I could imagine, and again, gives me chills. This film is filled with beautiful moments of both drama and humor, and I just can’t think of a time I’ve enjoyed myself so much in a film at the same time that I’ve been haunted and punched in the gut and given something to think about.

A lot has been written about the film as an indictment of commercialism (it came out the same year as Fight Club) and as a satire of the suburban life. Of course, that is all there, but it is also a devastating portrait of a marriage in crisis–of lives in crisis. The routine has kicked in, the relationships are on autopilot, and Lester feels that he has been in a coma for twenty years. I think we can all identify with this feeling. We tend to live not as we wish to live but as we have always lived. It’s easier that way. Lester discovers the ability to surprise himself–to open up to spontaneity and passion and what he wants as opposed to what he is told he should want. The manifestation of this is, I concede, unconventional at best and basely immoral at worse. He smokes weed, yells at his wife, gets in shape, quits his job while blackmailing his boss, gets a job flipping burgers, buys a Firebird without so much as consulting his wife, and lusts after and eventually acts on his desires toward an underage girl. I don’t condone his actions, but there’s something exhilarating about watching a man give a middle finger to his safe world of job stability and possessions (“It’s just a couch!”) and revert to being a teenager and being completely selfish. When he reminisces and tells Ricky, “All I did was party and get laid. I had my whole life ahead of me” he exudes a certain regret for how robotic his life has become. He is in a loveless marriage and a passionless life. His desires may be worldly, but here’s a guy that forces himself to actually live life, to find the joy in the little things, even at the express of what one would call the American Dream. I desire Lester’s passion, though not his behavior.

I suppose what stuck out to me upon first viewing is the idea of facades. The tagline “Look closer” asks us to pierce through appearances. The title is actually taken from a breed of roses that are pretty in appearance but rot beneath the roots. All of the characters in the film appear to be one thing when they are actually something quite different. The suburban houses and picket fences look perfect until you realize that marriages are crumbling within them. The tough-as-nails colonel is harboring repressed desires for his own sex; the seemingly slutty cheerleader is actually an insecure virgin, etc. We give one image to the world because that’s what we think they want to see, but who we are remains hidden. And there is a powerful struggle to maintain that illusion. While the façade stands, the interior erodes. These appearances come tumbling down toward the end of the film because they simply cannot do it anymore: who they are must come out. I suppose I respond to this struggle. While I think I relate to the film for additional and more profound reasons as well, this idea seems to easiest to articulate. As in Requiem for a Dream, I identify not with the exact circumstances but the feelings which they create. I don’t know what the corporate world is like. I don’t know what a twenty year marriage is like. But I do know about repressing passion (both in a good and bad way) and projecting an image of what I would like to be rather than what I am. For me, the film is about passion. Yes, there are sinful passions and spiritual passions. While Lester illustrates the former, it doesn’t undermine the personal conviction it creates for me concerning the latter. Who we are will emerge eventually. And the more diligently we try to maintain our facades, the more destructive we become internally. Lester acts on his fantasies. He doesn’t get lost in them in a way that renders him inactive in his life. While they may be immoral, it is still a striking example of how disillusionment can actually be a freeing thing. Rather than project who you want to be, why not be that person? Here, I’m talking strictly about desires and fantasies and passions which are not sinful. Our passions should fuel us; they should be a reality rather than a fantasy. And if I had to pinpoint a message from the film personally, it would be to find that which you love, which you feel like makes life worth living, and pursue it wholeheartedly. Don’t apologize or compromise. Don’t turn into a robot caught up in the routine of life without turning on your brain or opening your heart. Just live. Follow the passion God has placed in your heart and love it in the same way He loves you: with total abandon.


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