American Beauty is a seminal male alienation movie typical of the late 90s. It came, of course, in the last year of the decade, a year that would change the way movies were made with its a thrilling list of titles including Fight Club, Office Space, Being John Malkovich, and Magnolia. All covered the same themes of conformity and estrangement from society. From the very beginning, American Beauty hammers its theme as spoken by troubled teenager Jane Burnham (Thora Birch): “I need a father who’s a role model.”
Indeed, the opening has strong similarities to Fight Club. The narrator, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey in an Oscar-winning performance), is seen alone in bed, remarking in voice-over that he is “dead already”. It is no coincidence that this movie was released in the same year that Susan Faludi would publish her Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Lester will undergo some of the problems presented in the book, predominantly the effects of downsizing in the workplace. Lester’s office life is dry, this being another common theme of the late 90s.
By contrast, American Beauty paints a disturbing representation of women. Annette Bening, as Lester’s shrewish wife Carolyn, veers too close to the realm of stereotype. Although the implications of her character, i.e., that working women are mean, aggressive and break up the family, are troubling, she does touch upon the consumerism and materialism of the 90s in her desperation to sell a house and in the expectations of her prospective buyers.
American Beauty is especially noteworthy as director Sam Mendes’s first exploration of the same shallow suburbia he would revisit years later in Revolutionary Road. That film was set in the Eisenhower era and it is interesting to see how the 1950s shared some of the same problems with the late 90s in terms of suburban life. American Beauty keeps reminding us to “look closer” and when we do, the stains of this seemingly idyllic life become apparent.
Lester’s attraction to his daughter’s teenage friend Angela (Mena Suvari), for example, establishes him as a pathetic, hopeless, and washed-out man. This is the first time he feels any real emotion. It’s as if he has been emasculated during his years of living as a corporate drone in a banal suburban neighborhood.
“There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary,” says Angela. This is the movie’s way of saying that suburbia forces ordinariness on people, with Lester being the prime example. In truth, however, every family in the movie is dysfunctional and more than a bit weird.
The Burnham’s neighbors, for instance, consist of Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a young man with a disturbing fascination for filming the private lives of others, and his homophobic military father Col. Frank (Chris Cooper). As was common in the 50s and again in the 90s, TV is the center of life for Fitts family.
Unfortunately, the themes aren’t very subtle in American Beauty and that is a shortcoming. In this zeitgeist movie, we are expected to believe that every family is unhappy and harbors dark secrets. This seems like a deliberate exaggeration used to hammer a theme.
Fight Club and Being John Malkovich are better representations of the same theme. They went for satire rather than wallowing in self-pity and still got their points across. American Beauty is, frankly, a bit depressing. It has some attempts at dark humor but even then the movie seems to be talking down to people and feels sort of disjointed at times.
Sam Mendes would hone his skills more for Revolutionary Road. That movie was still depressing but it worked in context and was subtler in its themes and its characters were complex rather than caricatures. Mendes is a very talented director and despite the obviousness of the film his creativity is evident. American Beauty hints at the greatness to come from him.
Apparent from peering behind the manicured images of the American Dream, American Beauty serves as a cautionary tale about the end of privacy. This was a bold move before the Patriot Act even entered the public discourse. It warns us about a soon-to-come time when you can find out anything we want about anyone, no matter how private, simply by reading their Facebook profile.
As the Burnham family represents the American Dream gone sour, the Fitts family is an allegory for the age of electronic communication. Ricky spends all his time filming the Burnhams. What exactly is his obsession with filming both Jane and Lester? Also, is he blowing smoke in the eyes of his homophobic dad?
Of course, Frank Fitts is also living in a fantasy. He refuses to see the obvious truths about his son and by the end of the movie, his cover will also be blown. Mendes communicates the theme smartly with the sound of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a song about the futility of everyday life.
The most interesting character in the movie is Chris Cooper’s Col. Frank Fitts. Why did he conceal his secret for so long? How are we to interpret his final act? What is certain is that in the last few days of his life, Lester Burnham really did live his dream.
American Beauty is a good movie but not as great as it should be. Its satire seems out of place. The performances, however, are to be commended. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, and Wes Bentley all do a great job. Their performances are better than the movie as a whole, but keep it engaging nonetheless.