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At times, one can watch a movie and wonder about why one wastes the time on seeing a succession of pictures that illustrates something so banal, clichéic and generally boring, that one would rather do homework that watching it again.
American Beauty is not one of those. Actually, it is a movie one has to watch more than once in order to grasp the subtle sub-contexts of it. Luckily, I have seen in several times, so I claim to have understood at least some of it.
And so it begins…
What can be more typical than a family consisting of a mother, daughter and a father? What is more ordinary than a desktop job, dinner at the same time every day, a daughter that hates you and a wife who has forgotten what the word “sex” means several years ago?
Nothing. That is the situation in which we meet Lester.
“My name is Lester Burnham. I'm forty two-years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead. In a way, I'm dead already.”
The voiceover really tells us very much about the movie. But we do not realize that until later. The movie is told in a rather interesting fashion, where the protagonist tells us about his life in a flashback, something we don’t really catch until the Grande Finale.
Lester fills us in on his life, something that can make most people flinch. It all appears perfect, but the word appearance, is also a key here. While he and his wife have jobs, enough money, a daughter, a house, two cars, etc. one can’t avoid noticing that Lester is unhappy.
Come to think of it, most people in that movie are. The only ones who seem sincerely happy, are Lester’s neighbors, Jim and Jim. Yes, they are gay.
We also get to know about his wife (Carolyn) and daughter (Jane), something we will return to in the “characters” section. Lester also tells that he – is a looser. In the eyes of Carolyn and Jane at least. Of course, with such a supportive attitude, he also takes to that idea. We get an illustration of it when he manages to drop his briefcase, scattering papers all over the yard, while both his wife and daughter are standing next to the car, impatient to leave.
“Both my wife and my daughter think I'm this gigantic loser. And they're right. I've lost something very important. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn't always fell this... sedated.”
Lester’s work offers little else, and from the very start of it, we understand how boring such an office job must be. Not only that – but it is also something that might or might not be a safe way of income, considering the fact that an expert in rationalization is trying to cut down on the costs, by firing the expandable people.
Generally, Lester’s life sucks.
However, that all comes to a sudden change, when he and Carolyn go to see Jane in her cheer-girl group at school. During a basket game, Lester catches a view of Jane’s friend, Angela. That view is not everything he catches, since his obviously sexually frustrated mind draws seducing images to him, starring Angela and rose-leaves.
With that come a few amusing images that show us how pathetic Lester really is at that point. He is eavesdropping on Jane and Angela, he is calling Angela and then hangs up, etc. He also starts to work out, after overhearing Angela saying that she would “fuck him” if he just lifted some weights…
But that is not all. Even Angela is a catalyst in the change, she is not the only one. Lester goes to a party with his wife, getting into a conversation with eighteen year old Ricky Fitts. Stunned by Ricky’s self-confidence and his indifferent attitude, Lester seems to get a new personal hero. Another factor is also some high-quality marijuana drugs that Ricky lets Lester try.
The New Lester…
All that combined, forces Lester to take a look at his life and reconsider. The terra firma of the unhappy marriage with Carolyn comes to an abrupt end when she catches Lester masturbating at night. After a fight over it, Lester puts Carolyn down to the ground, by reminding her that he actually knows how to talk back.
Then Lester’s life changes. He starts working out, he starts listening to Pink Floyd (Finally some good music!), he quits his job, blackmailing his boss for 60,000$ in progress, he buys a sports-car… Basically, he does everything he had always wanted to do. And even though Carolyn is not particularly happy about it, there is nothing she can do. Lester is totally unaffected by her complaints, and she has no reason to divorce him, as he pointed out in one of the quarrels.
Of course, no change ever comes alone. When Lester changes, it affects everyone around him. Carolyn looses her last remains of faith into her (from her point of view) hopeless husband and seeks comfort in the arms of “Real Estate King”, the man who is as career focused as she is.
Jane becomes increasingly frustrated with Angela, since she is not supporting Jane with her father, but instead bugs her about him being sexy all the time. Jane also starts going together with Ricky, even though he is considered a freak by everyone else.
The world of false harmony is turned into a world of true chaos.
The beginning of the end…
But, as any chemist knows, adding an unstable component to the world based on stability can rarely end good.
As the movie progresses, things tend to work out better and better for Lester. He catches his wife cheating on him, so if she had no reason to divorce him earlier, she sure as hell did not now. He smokes weed, drinks beer, drools at Angela and generally feels content.
Here, the movie splits into three paths. The first one is Col. Fitts (Ricky’s father).
Col. Fitts sees Ricky as he sells weed to Lester. However, he mistakes it for something else. As in many cases, Colonel’s contempt for homosexuals was nothing but a mask, a mask that was used to hide the exact opposite of what it showed.
He beats Ricky up, and kicks him out of the house. Of course, without knowing that Ricky has enough money to start a new life. He walks over to Lester’s house, kissing Lester, but being rejected. One can imagine how a person who had denied his own homosexuality for almost a lifetime reacts when it turns out that the person he kissed when he finally came out of the closet was not gay.
Second path is Jane and Ricky.
When his father starts yelling at him, accusing him of being gay, Ricky snaps. In pure denial, he talks back to his father, lying and saying that, yes, he is gay. Yes, he likes to fuck other men, and yes, he gets paid for it. When his father kicks him out, Ricky says goodbye to his mother, and goes to Jane.
At that time, Jane has Angela over at her place, something that complicates things. Ricky asks Jane if she wanted to go to New-York with him, something she agrees with. Angela tries to talk her out of it, but Ricky shows his teeth. He does not scream, he does not grow angry. However, his words are killing to Angela. He tells her that she is, as a matter of fact, very ordinary. Obviously, it was the thing Angela had a great fear of.
Jane and Ricky walk away, leaving Angela crying on the stairs.
Third path is Lester, Angela and Carolyn.
Lester walks upstairs, after his encounter with Col. Fitts. He is confused, and somehow does not even seem surprised when he sees Angela sitting on the stairs, crying her eyes out. After talking with her for a while, he manages to convince her that she is not ordinary at all. In gratefulness, she decides to sleep with him.
However, Angela is not what Lester thinks. Again, we speak of appearances. While being undressed by drooling Lester, Angela blurts out with her still being a virgin. Now, in most cases it wouldn’t stop a guy. But, it is a serious blow to Lester and his image of the seductress Angela. Suddenly he no longer sees a tempting woman in front of him, but an insecure girl. Needless to say, the desire for sex disappears rather quickly. Instead he takes her downstairs, talking to her about small things, acting almost like a father figure.
Carolyn is sitting in her car, listening to some typical rubbish-therapy on her car-stereo. She is red-eyed, and crying. The “Real Estate King” left her after they got busted by Lester, something that caused Carolyn to think that she was left as a victim. Finding her glock 19 in her purse, she chants on her “mantra”, repeating over and over again, “I refuse to be a victim”. Her car drives back home.
Angela and Lester are sitting in the kitchen, eating some sandwiches. They talk, and Angela suddenly says that she has to use the bathroom. As she leaves, Lester picks up the photo of his family, and looks at it, his facial expression changing to something that reminds me of nostalgia.
A gun is shown a couple of inches from his head. We hear a shot, and the blood stains the wall. Lester falls at the table.
Voice-over Lester speaks to us, and we finally understand that the entire movie was a flashback – the one second during which the life passes in front of your eyes.
“I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... But it's hard to stay mad, when 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...”
Generally, most of the characters in this movie are two-fold. How they appear to be early in the movie, and how they become later on, when their real “faces” show. Of course, it is all about contrasts. Angela, that speaks of sex like she had done it many times, while she is a virgin, sedated Lester that turns out to have a passion, and so on.
As the poster in Lester’s office says – “Look closer”.
(Early) Lester: A typical man in his early forties, Lester is someone who has been living not because of his life having a point, but because he had not yet died. As he himself says in the beginning, “In a way, I am dead already.” He does not have anything left to care for, nothing to struggle against, no will to state his opinions or force things to happen.
(Later) Lester: When a person gets a taste of freedom after a long time in chains, the reaction can be rather… violent. Instead of slowly getting used to the freedom he attained, Lester does everything at the same time. Of course, that is not the way to go. His rebellion against the strict authorities he was forced to live under breaks not only the control they held over him, but also the very walls of his existence, making his life self-destructive.
(Early) Carolyn: A typical career woman, with no emotions showing to the outside. Of course, no human can ever become like that, but Carolyn tries to. No emotions underneath the polite smile, no human under the mask. But, even though she tries to become a machine, she is still human, and therefore all her smiles, happy attitude and the entire perfect life seems phony to the outside, though she herself believes it.
(Later) Carolyn: After the mask collapses, we finally see how confused and sad Carolyn really is. She cries through the entire ending sequence of the movie, and it’s really understandable. One cannot expect a person who is used to living in her shell to know how the world really is.
(Early) Jane: As Lester described her – she seems to be a typical teen. She is insecure, confused, not aware of herself… Generally, Jane is a girl that has no place in life. Her friend is Angela, that seems to be the exact opposite of what Jane is.
(Later) Jane: Ricky causes a metamorphosis in Jane’s unstable perception of life. From being insecure, she realizes that she is different, and that she is alright with it. That she doesn’t really care what people think of her – as long as she is happy with it. Self-confidence is a natural result of such an understanding.
“Angela: He is a freak!
Jane: Well, so am I!”
Ricky: He is probably the only character that keeps his attitude throughout the movie. That might have something to do with him altering the world to what he likes rather than the other way around. He is self-confident, smart and manipulative. He knows what to say to cause reactions, even though he normally does not care enough about people around him to actually say it.
He is also incredibly different from what regular people are. Seeing beauty in death is not something that many people can do, nor are there many who can perceive the beauty in a plastic bag, chased around by the autumn wind.
(Early) Angela: We all know the type. Popular, perfect, invincible… Of course, such is the surface. Angela seems to know a lot about everything, including sex. She also seems very cynical, providing statements like “If people look at me and want to fuck me – it means I really have good chances on becoming a model.”
(Later) Angela: Again, when the mask is stripped, we see that the person underneath it is the exactly opposite of what she had appeared like. The cynical attitude is replaced by innocence and lack of experience, and the invincibility collapses after a few words by Ricky.
(Early) Col. Fitts: US Marine, a conservative and loyal citizen that by no means wishes to be something else, he hates everyone who is supposed to hate, and likes everything he is supposed to like. A sort of a soldier-ant in an ant-hive.
(Later) Col. Fitts: The stripped off mask reveals a tired old man. He is not tired of life, but he is tired of hiding his real self. Trying to come out of the closet with his homosexuality (again influenced by Ricky), he fails, his newfound self turning to acts of desperation.
(Early) Real Estate King: In a nutshell, he is a male version of Carolyn. When we see him for the first time, we imagine that everything is perfect, he has a beautiful wife, and so on. However, it is an image, and nothing more.
“In order to be successful, one has to project an image of success.”
-Real Estate King
(Later) Real Estate King: We get to know a bit more about him. His life turns out to be less perfect than expected, but he is still unaffected by it. No wonder – since the only things that matter to him are career and shooting.
As I understand it, the movie tells us one thing.
Never loose that thing that makes you an individual human rather than a typical consumer that simply lives because he still hasn’t died. Of course, it is something that many movies have told it before it, but I think that American Beauty says it very openly, without any reservations.
Some people say it glorifies the usage of drugs, some say it is a criticism to the liberal gun laws. I disagree. The most important thing that the movie criticizes is the need for people to pretend to be happy in order to be accepted.