Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #21

Re: American Beauty (1999)

Just found your site and I read a few reviews. Good thought provocation.

I enjoyed American Beauty for the artistic value and I also thought that it made a valid spiritual point. I was left with the impression that Kevin Spacey’s character had intentionally removed himself from contributing (to many things including society, his marriage, his duties as a parent and role model). This was why at the end of his life, it seemed so empty. I think we are supposed to try to be beautiful (through holiness), and Lester rejected that notion completely. I am tired of seeing characters make that choice and get away with it. I also thought that the word “American” in the title indicated that Lester’s sort of behavior is becoming the American way of life.

I like your reading of American Beauty better than what I think the movie is actually saying, although it doesn’t change my thoughts about the movie’s real meaning. I agree that there’s some sort of critique of Lester, but don’t you think the movie also celebrates his behavior to some extent? Isn’t his behavior in some way held up as a justifiable or understandable rejection of all that’s wrong with bourgeois American suburban life?

In particular, do you see any indication in the film that contributing to society, marriage and so forth is held up as a worthy goal? As I see it, marriage, family, society, work and so forth are all part of the hypocritical trap that Lester reasonably and rightly rebels against. Lester is more enlightened than most of the other people in the film; only Ricky is more enlightened, and I don’t see any evidence that Ricky’s enlightenment is leading him in the direction of becoming a good citizen and pillar of society. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers would regard such a move as a betrayal of the values he represents.

I love the insight of a friend from Arts & Faith: In the end, Lester refrains from sleeping with Angela, not because he finally realizes that a middle-aged man shouldn’t be dallying with a teenaged tart, but because it turns out that Angela isn’t really the experienced sexpot she pretends to be — that she’s actually a frightened virgin. Were she really as ready and willing as Lester had fantasized, the story would have gone in a completely different direction.

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