The American Beauty by Sam Mendes is a critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning representation of the American suburban life. Although it has a comedic twist to it, the movie has serious underlying issues of the discontented nature of human beings. Through the characters, we are able to see humans by nature dissatisfied with the status quo. They yearn for something, once they get it, they start yearning for something else. While they are busy chasing meaningless stuff, they abandon what is more imminent in life. This cycle of discontentment is what has come to be described as the American way of life.
Sam Mendes uses beauty ironically in the title to mean vane pursuits. There is the presence of red roses when a character finds something beautiful. For instance, Carolyn cuts roses, while admiring the fashion sense of their neighbors. Lester is also sprinkled with rose petals when he fantasizes about Angela, her teenage daughter’s friend. The red rose may have been used symbolically to refer to temporary things that may have dire consequences on us.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), the main protagonist of the movie finds ‘beauty’ in his youthful vigor and the wild life it brought with it. This beauty is suppressed by responsibilities of adulthood and family life. He however undergoes youthful reinvention, when he gets physically attracted to Angela. He goes through a series of activities that revitalize his spirits, such as lifting weights, jogging, owning a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, smoking marijuana and quitting his job to work at a fast food restaurant.
His life was a trap that he could not escape from. He had been working on the same job for 14 years and lived in a loveless marriage for twenty years. Angela was his only source of reprieve- his beauty. His life is however cut short by the things that bring joy to him. All the same, he does not regret that he spends his last moments on earth doing things he loves.
Carolyn, Lester’s wife finds beauty in materialism- wealth, fashion and becoming the biggest real estate agent in town. Lester’s mild career success has seen her grow cold towards him. She is also hard on herself because her career did not turn out as she had envisioned. She therefore gets entangled in a loveless sexual affair with Buddy Kane, who is at the pinnacle of real estate success. He however dumps her when Lester learns of the affair.
Angela fears being unloved. She uses lies to gain social acceptance. She masks her insecurities with her physical beauty and an over inflated confidence. Although she lures Lester with these two attributes, it turns out that Angela is not different from other teenage girls. Just like Jane, she is extremely critical of her beauty and longs for someone who will find beauty in her. In the end, Lester realizes that he cannot play the role of a lover and father to Angela and decides to give her fatherly advice instead.
Jane, Lester’s daughter is the typical teenager- angry towards everything, including his parents. She however finds beauty in Ricky Fitts, her neighbor. Her naivety makes her believe that running away is the answer to her problems, but that is not always the case. It is unfortunate that her father is murdered before they could patch things up. Despite this sad fact, she finds beauty in Ricky, who is somewhat weird.
Ricky on the other hand, finds beauty where there seems to be none. In one instance, he is fascinated by a flying bag to the point that he makes a video recording of it. He even finds beauty in blood that is oozing from Lester’s lifeless body, after he is shot. Colonel Frank Fitts, Ricky’s father also has his own skeletons that he has safely kept hidden. To hide that he is a homosexual, he becomes violently homophobic. He wrongly suspects Lester of having a homosexual affair with Ricky, which propels him to kill Lester.
In an ironic twist of events, the things that these characters find beautiful are actually not. They are temporary fixes to their deep underlying problems of low self-esteem.
- Lester feels lonely in a family that he has lived with for 20 years- he seeks sexual gratification from Angela.
- Carolyn wants to be successful as a real estate agent- she gets involved in a sexual relationship with Buddy Kane to have a taste of success.
- Jane seeks affection from Ricky to fill the void of emptiness she feels.
- Angela and Colonel Fitts constantly lie to be socially accepted, while Ricky has the problem of finding beauty in everything.
In the end, it becomes apparent that none of them found what they were looking for. Through Lester’s commentary from the life beyond, we realize that he actually regrets losing his family. The people he grew to despise were at one time very jovial and fun to be around. A quick flashback reveals his wife spinning on a merry-go-round, radiant and fully alive; and their four year old daughter, dressed up as an angel, was a bundle of joy for her parents. A complete contrast of what they later turned out to be.
From this movie, we learn one thing: we do not know what we have till we lose it. Lester learns this very late in his life and has no opportunity to redeem himself. It takes a few good memories of his young wife and daughter to reveal to him that he had something beautiful, but he blew it away in nostalgic pursuits of his younger days. Most of these characters could have learnt a thing or two from Ricky, who saw beauty in everything.
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