1999, DreamWorks. Directed by Sam Mendes. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Brief graphic violence; depictions of illicit sexual situations including adultery, masturbation, and nudity; some profanity and rough language.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Some movies have a moral. I say that as a mere statement of fact, with no implication that either having or not having a moral necessarily makes a movie better or worse. Some movies have a moral; American Beauty — and this is also a mere observation, not a value judgment — has an aesthetic. “There’s so much beauty in the world,” says Ricky (Wes Bentley), a teenaged videographer with a poet’s soul who can see the beauty in a plastic bag swirling in the wind or a dead pigeon lying on the grass. “I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”
Echoing this speech, Lester (Kevin Spacey), who lives next door to Ricky, tells the audience: “You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will some day.” Lester doesn’t necessarily have a poet’s soul, but he is dead, and seems to have a larger perspective.
Larger, anyway, than the other characters in American Beauty, who for the most part would indeed have no idea what Ricky or Lester are talking about. The beauty of the world is largely lost on the likes of Lester’s estranged wife Carolyn (Annette Bening); their disaffected daughter Jane (Thora Birch); shallow Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), Carolyn’s business rival and lover; hostile, suspicious Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), Ricky’s ex-Marine father; and even attractive but slutty Angela (Mena Suvari), daughter Jane’s cheerleader friend, whose own flowering beauty becomes for Lester a shining icon of all that’s missing in his life — of the beauty that he and everyone around him have been missing.
Spacey, whose performance won him a Best Actor Oscar, is genuinely riveting in the lead role. He’s at least as good as he was five years earlier giving almost exactly the same performance in almost exactly the same role: Spacey’s character in the entertaining 1994 black comedy The Ref was named Lloyd and not Lester, and his wife was Caroline instead of Carolyn (!), but names aside, Lloyd and Lester are practically the same character: a quietly unhappy, emotionally withdrawn, passive-aggressive suburban husband and father, unloved and unrespected at home both by his estranged wife (who is in both movies unfaithful, shrewish, short-haired, and brunette) and by their disaffected teenage child; unappreciated and unrewarded professionally in his dead-end career; living a life of quiet desperation until a crisis spurs him to act out and demand to be taken seriously.
Lloyd in The Ref was even referred to as “a corpse” by his sneering wife; memorably prompting him a bit later to bark, bashing the Christmas tree with a fireplace poker for emphasis, “The corpse still has the floor!” In American Beauty, of course, Lester really is a corpse; as with Sunset Boulevard, the last weeks of a doomed protagonist’s life are narrated from the perspective of the dead man. “I’ll be dead with in a year,” the corpse informs viewers in voice-over narration as they watch the beginning of the end of his life. “In a way, I’m dead already.”
American Beauty wants to tell us how Lester lived before he died: how this unhappy man was suddenly one day awakened from the paralysis of loneliness, ennui, and despair and galvanized into unexpected action by a sudden, powerful erotic passion for a teenaged cheerleader.
Lester fantasizes about Angela. Eavesdrops on her from outside his daughter’s bedroom door. Calls her at home and hangs up when she answers. Begins working out to try to impress her. Angela, meanwhile, is well aware of the effect she has on her friend’s father — and other males — and likes it, reasoning that her ability to inspire lust bodes well for her modeling aspirations.
Soon Lester is buying designer pot from Ricky (who makes big money as a drug dealer in order to finance his expensive equipment habits), listening to Pink Floyd, and rebelling at work. Rather than submit to a degrading bureaucratic procedure, he flamboyantly quits his job and blackmails his boss for a year’s pay. Then he buys himself a spiffy 1970 Firebird, and gets a job at a fast-food joint (“I want the job with the least amount of responsibility,” he tells the disbelieving supervisor).
American Beauty doesn’t really mean to endorse any of Lester’s impetuous gestures as a viable course of action for a middle-aged suburban husband and father. In particular the film is realistic about the fact that, whatever it might please such a man to fantasize to the contrary, an actual physical relationship with a teenage girl would inevitably be unsatisfying and degrading to both parties. Angela may enjoy flirting with Lester, but she’s no fit partner for him, and the movie knows it.
Lester’s actions are essentially meant as a kind of exaggerated rebellion against the dehumanizing expectations of corporate and middle-class suburban existence: a rejection of the terms of a social contract that has become unbearably oppressive. One school of social theory claims that certain forms of criminal behavior are a natural, even “healthy”, response to poverty and unemployment and privation. In the same way, perhaps, push a middle-class man far enough and he’s bound to start smoking dope and buying himself toys.
What exactly are Lester’s intolerable hardships? Precisely how has the world put upon him? Well, there’s the job thing, naturally. And of course something has gone wrong with his home life; although the fact that the only fully realized human being in the entire story is Lester himself (and maybe Angela, shallow as she is) makes it hard to know, for example, precisely where things went wrong between Lester and the unpleasant stereotype that is his wife. This Carolyn isn’t a quarter as complex or interesting as the Caroline of The Ref, and her quarrels with Lester aren’t nearly as persuasive or involving as the deep-seated issues between Caroline and Lloyd.
Just in case Lester’s life doesn’t seem all that oppressive, American Beauty raises the general oppression quotient with the introduction of Colonel Fitts, Lester’s new next-door neighbor and Ricky’s father. Fitts is another caricature, a man who requires urine samples from his son for drug testing, keeps a piece of Nazi china in his cabinet alongside his gun collection, sneers homophobically at a gay couple, and — in a tiresome rhetorical flourish — turns out, hypocritically, to have suppressed sexuality issues of his own. (Fitts is the only individual in the movie to express any qualms about homosexuality; and, as Michael Medved points out, the gay couple represent the only “family” in the film that isn’t obviously grotesquely dysfunctional.)
If Lester is American Beauty’s flawed hero, Ricky is perhaps the embodiment of the film’s values — almost, with his video equipment and gospel of beauty, the onscreen representative of the filmmakers themselves. A combination enlightened poet and Nietzchean superman who possesses the absolute freedom to which Lester aspires, Ricky also has a clarity of vision and insight that Lester in his adolescent strugglings lacks. Lester may be bewitched by Angela’s looks, but Ricky sees through her superficiality and shallowness; he’s interested in Lester’s daughter Jane, not Angela — which, naturally, convinces Angela that he’s a freak (“I mean he didn’t even, like, look at me once!”).
(Spoiler alert.) In the film’s final scene, when Lester is killed, Ricky is on hand, along with Jane. Approaching the murder scene, Ricky and Jane see Lester’s shattered head lying on the kitchen table, his blood spilling onto the floor. And Ricky, staring, gets down at eye level with the tabletop. What is he thinking? Something like “Dear God, a murder has just been committed”? Or, “Here is my girlfriend being scarred for life by discovering the gruesome remains of her murdered father”? Nope. Ricky has no ordinary human feelings about Lester’s head; all he sees is his precious “beauty.” The freak.
Actually, there is one relatively ordinary, sane individual in this tale: Jane. Unlike Lester or Ricky or anyone else in this movie, Jane knows that she needs a sense of structure and order that’s sadly missing in her life. She also knows she hasn’t got much chance of getting it: her “geek-boy” father is very far from the “role model” she explicitly says she needs, and her boyfriend, though perhaps more impressive, is hardly an improvement. The prospects for Jane look dim at the end of the movie; though I hold out more hope for her than anyone else in the pathetic cast.
Why does Lester have to die? Is it because the film wants to punish him for the crime of rebelling against the strictures and expectations of his middle-class suburban world? On the contrary. Lester’s death is meant as a condemnation of the intolerant and repressive world he inhabits, a world that first drives a man to the breaking point and then punishes him for breaking. If American Beauty does have a moral, perhaps it is this: beauty on the one hand, and the values of bourgeois Judeo-Christian American society on the other, are mutually exclusive.
But I’m not sure American Beauty does have a moral. It’s full of morally charged themes — dehumanizing corporate practices, lust and masturbation and adultery, child-beating and statutory rape, homosexuality and homophobia, intolerance and murder. Yet in the end, it seems as if we’re meant to feel that the real issue is the beauty in a plastic bag swirling in the breeze or a dead dove on the grass.
I’m very far from belittling the beauty of even a plastic bag swirling in the breeze; beauty is holy, wherever it is found. But there is beauty to which this movie is stone cold blind: beauty it tramples on as ignorantly as Buddy Kane or Col. Fitts. Just as there is a holiness to beauty, there is a beauty to holiness; holiness and beauty are two sides of the same coin. The psalmist was onto something when he sang, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!”
The makers of American Beauty have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But they will, some day.