American Beauty

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene.


American Beauty
Year of Release: 1999.
Rating: R for…yeah, pretty much everything.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoiler Alert: Lester dies.

There admittedly wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about in the way of new Netflix arrivals in December, but after an appropriate amount of time mourning the loss of Spice World I found the silver lining: finally, American Beauty. So if you’re one of the five people in the U.S. who hasn’t ever seen this movie, and it’s too late to rent the VHS from your friendly neighborhood Blockbuster like I used to do in high school, here’s your chance.

I’ve always been a sucker for suburban angst (Little Children, In the Bedroom, Revolutionary Road) but American Beauty has always seemed like the most relatable film in the genre because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Case in point: the nonchalance of Lester (Kevin Spacey)’s voiceover during the opening scene: My name is Lester Burnham…in less than a year, I’ll be dead. Lester is a suburban husband, father, and unhappy white collar worker who mostly disappears behind his manic, demonstrative wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and pissy teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Until he doesn’t, and against all odds becomes a pretty likeable guy.

During the halftime show of the high school basketball game Carolyn has dragged him to, Lester finds his muse in Jane’s dance teammate Angela (Mena Suvari). What follows is a sequence of fantasies in which Angela performs a seductive dance for Lester, stares at him wantonly from the ceiling, and asks him to give her a bath – all while covered in the red rose petals that appear throughout the film. This is all very creepy, especially when Lester goes out on a limb to find Angela’s number and dial it while Jane is in the shower, but perhaps forgivable once we realize that Angela is the catalyst for Lester learning how to live life on his own terms.

There’s plenty of despair in American Beauty, particularly in the home of neighboring Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who copes with his abusive Marine father (Chris Cooper) and catatonic mother (a surprising role for Allison Janney) by filming all the beauty he sees in the world with a small camera. Ricky, who decided to play by his own rules a long time ago by selling high-quality marijuana to pay for his film equipment, is the right inspiration at the right time for Lester. And so American Beauty’s high points arrive when Lester follows Ricky’s lead in shoving off unhappiness: standing up to Carolyn’s rage, quitting his humdrum job to take a fast-food position with the least possible amount of responsibility, buying his dream car, and getting really stoned and pumping iron to Bob Dylan in the garage. The dinner when Lester throws a plate of asparagus at the wall and finally voices his disdain for Lawrence Welk is easily some of the most fluid and effortless comedy I’ve ever seen. As is everything involving the subplot of Annette Bening having an affair with Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows.

I could go off on a lot of tangents when it comes to American Beauty. That Annette Bening was robbed at the Oscars. That Chris Cooper is still one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. That this film did for homosexuality in the 1990s what Kramer vs. Kramer did for divorce in the 1970s (and that’s not a hint at a future movie review or anything; no). But this time around, I couldn’t watch it without remembering a speech that Ashton Kutcher (stay with me) gave a few years ago on Steve Jobs.

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is. And that your life is to live your life inside the world and try not to get in too much trouble, and maybe get an education and get a job and make some money and have a family. But life can be a lot broader than that when you realize one simple thing, and that is that everything around us that we call life was made up by people who are no smarter than you. And you can build your own things; you can build your own life that other people can live in. So build a life. Don’t live one, build one.

Nearly all of the characters in American Beauty are completely miserable because they have resigned themselves to lives that someone else told them they should want, or because they’re masking something they feel cannot be made visible. When Lester first meets Ricky, he reminisces about a summer when all I did was party and get laid. I had my whole life ahead of me. At its core, American Beauty is a dare to flip burgers while the rest of the country barks at you to work a soul-sucking 9 to 5 – if flipping burgers is what makes you happy. Lester dies at the end, yes, but he dies happy. How many of us will be able to say the same?

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