American Beauty

The 1999 film, American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by Alan Ball, is unusual for a Hollywood film, in that it deals with philosophical issues, in particular: the questions of what is freedom, is it possible for an individual to be truly free, and what is beauty.

Lester (Kevin Spacey), works for an advertising company in a job he hates. He is emotionally estranged from his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and from his daugher, Jane (Thora Birch). Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), which repulses Jane. Meanwhile, she becomes involved with her next-door neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley), whose father, Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a retired Marine colonel. One night, Lester meets Ricky at a party where the latter is working for a catering service. Ricky invites Lester outside to smoke a joint with him. When they are discovered by Ricky’s boss, Ricky tells him he is quitting. Ricky’s audacity impresses Lester, and it inspires him to change his life. He later gives a sarcastic memo to his boss, who fires him. This sets off a chain of events that result in Lester being killed.

The film makes clear the emptiness of Lester’s life. His efforts to reach out to his wife and daughter both fail. Yet his attempt to break out of his stifling life is deeply flawed from the very beginning. He despises the corruption and dishonesty of the company he works for, yet he blackmails his boss into giving him a generous severance package. He criticizes Carolyn for being materialistic, yet the first thing he does with his severance money is buy a Camaro. Indeed, Lester’s behavior merely becomes more cynical after he rejects his empty life. In a sense he moves from one type of imprisonment to another. However, when Lester tries to seduce Angela, he suddenly realizes that he can’t go through with it. It is at this point that Lester is finally finds peace with himself.

More problematic is the film’s treatment of the concept of beauty. In one scene, Ricky tells Jane how he once saw the body of a dead woman. He says: “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back.” Jane asks: “And what do you see?” Ricky: “Beauty.” (The producers reportedly wanted to cut this scene, but Ball refused.) Later, after Lester is killed, Ricky gazes at his body in rapt fascination. This association of beauty with death is questionable in my opinion. I’m told that Ball had originally wanted to end the film with Ricky and Jane being wrongly accused of killing Lester, but the producers talked him out of it. This ending would have at least given some irony to Ricky’s talk about beauty. There is however a scene in which Ricky shows Jane a video he made of a plastic bag blowing around in the wind, which suggests that his idea of beauty is actually something that transcends life.

American Beauty is one of the most remarkable American films of the past twenty years.

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