Have you ever had a film speak to you? I mean really speak to you… like you were the only person in the room and it whispered ever so quietly that only your heart could hear it. American Beauty is that one special film that seems to resonate deeper and longer in me than any other film has ever done before. There are a variety of reasons I can attribute this to; it could be the unforgettable acting of Kevin Spacey, the way the film unravels the classic suburban veneer or it could be the visually stunning fantasy scenes. But truly, the most authentically mesmerising part of American Beauty, is the bittersweet, melancholy poetry at its very centre.
Rather shockingly American beauty opens up similarly as did Sunset Boulevard, with the idea of death thick in the air as Lester Burnham’s voice over states nonchalantly: “in less than a year I’ll be dead… In a way I’m dead already.” Then we cut to his daughter Jane post coital requesting her father to be killed. Smash back to the present and on the surface the Burnham’s look like your atypical family, easily able to go unnoticed amongst the white picket fences, match box houses and mundanity of suburban living. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged magazine writer, Carolyn (Annette Bening) is an ambitious real estate broker and Jane (Thora Birch) is a cheerleader at school. But below all the plastic smiles, forced dinner conversations and perfectly pressed suits; there is a melting pot of frustration, yarning and hate that threatens to explode to the surface at any point.
Lester absolutely despises his job and feels that both his wife and daughter think he is an absolute maroon. Carolyn is no longer satisfied with her life and wants more success and a better husband and daughter that matches her ideals. While Jane abhors both her parents, particularly her father and battles against low self-esteem. But soon it becomes a race against time before the ticking time bomb inside of each of them reaches zero; when the Burnham’s get a new neighbour in the form of Frank Fitts, a militant ex-army cornel and his son Ricky who is an introspective, permanently serious teen obsessed with filming everything and who soon grows interested in Jane. Then a few days later when Lester attends one of Jane’s cheer events and he sets his eyes on a blonde bombshell who happens to also be cheerleading. He then begins to fantasise about the girl in which she reveals her cleavage and her breasts explode with red rose petals – the red rose petals will go on to become a recurring motif in the film. At the end of the event and to his complete surprise Jane introduces the girl as her friend Angela to her parents and thus like Nabokov’s Lolita, a love affair with a forbiddingly young women is ignited in Lester. However while Angela is sweat and innocent in Lester’s company, solely in the presence of Jane she is brazen and constantly brags about her numerous sexual conquests. This new lease of lust and life in Lester, converts itself into a confidence that allows him quit his job and set fire to the charade of his old existence. Then like a phoenix from the flames, Lester rises and reinvents himself into something else, something better, something more doomed.
American Beauty is essentially an exploration of when the quiet suburbs are not enough, when the 9-5 isn’t enough, when the American dream isn’t enough and when your life isn’t enough. Writer Alan Ball riddles his screenplay with so many complexities while director Sam Mendes translates and explores all this profoundly through the use of visual metaphors; first in the tones of red rose petals that appear every time Angela is concerned and then the floating bag that seems to fascinate Rick and Jane so profusely. I felt the rose petals where a motif of the way a rose can look so stunning when you look at from afar, but when you get closer and look below the petals you see the thorns on the stem. This felt like a parable of Angela who seems so hypnotically sex on the surface, but below she is a very ugly person. While for me the bin bag represent the state each of the Burnham’s want to be, they each wont to be able allowed to transcend their lives and insecurities and just be free to exist and be carried away by the wind.
I don’t know what it is about Kevin Spacey, but every time he enters the screen your every sense becomes heightened, your feeling of anticipation is aroused and your breath prepares itself to be taken away. He’s not big and brash like Al Pacino, mysterious and haunting like Marlon Brando or suave and gallant like Paul Newman. Yet Kevin Spacey as an actor is no less great or compelling. Instead he has the ability to assimilate into any role, build unfathomable amounts of subvert layers into every character, disarm any notion that you are watching a performance and thus completely suspend your disbelief. From Swimming with Sharks and Glengarry Glen Ross to House of Cards, Kevin Spacey is the greatest actor of all time. In American Beauty, Spacey (which is my favourite Spacey performance) effectively champions and embodies the role of the everyman, the average Joe who does the impossible and breaks away from the machine. He plays the role in such away it is impossible not to cheer for him or place yourself in his shoes and vicariously live every victory and failure with him.
Despite being his first feature, Same Mendes was able to make Hollywood history by becoming the youngest ever director to win the Oscar for best director. However watching American Beauty it comes as no surprise considering he shows he understands the plight of not just Americans, but everyone in the world who at times feels like they’re on a constant pilgrimage to discover the meaning of their lives, yet are constantly meet with dead ends and no lights at the end of the tunnel. But there is a sweetness and uplifting quality to American Beauty, it’s a film about change and finding true happiness. It can take that one special moment, thought or person to stroll into your life and completely give it new meaning and purpose. American Beauty is true melancholy poetry.