Happy Cineversary: American Beauty

20 Oct

This month marks the ten year anniversary of a certain film. Ten years ago, when I saw the commercials for this film, I was OUTRAGED. I was absolutely disgusted. As far as I could see it was a movie about a man who has an affair. An affair involving roses. This was enough for my eleven year-old self to deem it as “grody” and leave it at that. Enough for me,  “preserver of righteousness”,  to indignantly turn off the Oscars (perish the thought!) when the Academy had the audacity to give this film Best Picture. “What a bunch of perverts!” I yelled at the television. Fast-forward to ten years later and I, according to my eleven year-old self, am a pervert.

American Beauty is one of the great films. It is hilarious and it is harrowing. It is entertaining and it is difficult to watch. It is exaggerated and it is real. And for a first from both the writer, Alan Ball, and the director, Sam Mendes, it is brave and it is perfect.

Lester and Carolyn, American Beauty

Lester and Carolyn, American Beauty

I won’t really describe the plot of the film at length, because I feel that most people who want to see it have probably seen it by this point in time, and those who haven’t seen it probably have no interest in it, and therefore likely stopped reading at the title. Suffice it to say that the film is introduced by narration of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a pathetic, catatonic middle aged man, who tells us in some of his first words that he’ll be dead in a year. From there we meet his family, Carolyn (Annette Bening) a self-help employing, pristine machine, and his daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) your average, awkward teenager. Through the family we are introduced to a smutty “Realty King” (Peter Gallagher), a patronizing, foxy teen (Mena Suvari), a fearful colonel (Chris Cooper), and a borderline creepy neighbor who is obsessed with capturing life’s most intimate moments on tape (Wes Bentley). While the introduction to the movie generates a mystery for the viewers, the actors and the stories behind the characters are so interesting that we forget the whodunit it aspect, losing ourselves in simply watching them be.

Ricky and Jane, American Beauty

Ricky and Jane, American Beauty

People who criticize the film seem to dwell on the clichés of the anti-suburban themes, claiming that it is yet another tale of the dysfunctional condition of American families. While I, too, generally find such themes to be redundant, this is the one movie that gets it right. In the hands of any other filmmakers the artificial, upper-middle class characters might have been in danger of becoming caricatures, but through the brilliant writing, direction, and acting, the personalities are truly authentic. No matter how much we disagree with or wish to distance ourselves from the characters, their interactions with one another, their ethos, their wit, their uncertainty, are relatable because they are real and raw. By the time it gets to Lester Burnham’s death, the characters have all completely unravelled themselves from their seemingly conventional first appearances.

However, I believe I’m selling the film short by focusing on themes of suburbia. While setting the film in a white picket fence, suburban neighborhood was used as the medium, it was merely that: the medium, not the objective. Alan Ball could have created many other environments in which the same values could be embodied. In his acceptance speech at the Oscars, Ball said that he was inspired to write American Beauty after he saw a paper bag floating in the wind at the World Trade Center plaza. That paper bag plays a vital role in the film’s two most poignant scenes, inspiring conversation about beauty and the importance of living: “There’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.” The movie isn’t about dysfunction. It’s not the sum of what we screwed up, it’s about delighting in what we got right. I find it very odd when people tell me they think American Beauty is depressing, for I see it as just the opposite. It uplifts me. American Beauty is a celebration of life.

Wishing Thomas Newman composed my life,



One Response to “Happy Cineversary: American Beauty”

  1. Charlie Bucket October 22, 2009 at 9:55 am #

    very well put! Your eleven year old self should be shot. by then my eleven year old self wouldn’t have any one to play with.

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