American Beauty (review)

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An Icon Is Born

(Best of 1999)

I think Lester Burnham is destined to become an iconic American character, one with a life well beyond the film that spawned him. As “Forrest Gump,” “Norman Bates,” and “Mr. Smith,” have all become shorthand for, respectively, childlike innocence and wisdom, weirdos with mother fixations, and all-American gung-ho in the face of bureaucratic opposition, so “Lester Burnham” will become, I think, a byword for realizing too late what life is all about.

The Lester that American Beauty offers us at first is anything but inspirational — in fact, he may be one of the most unlikable protagonists to hit the screen in a while. A “horny geek boy,” as his teenage daughter calls him, a “gigantic loser” as he calls himself, Lester tells us right as the film opens that he’ll be dead in less than a year. And we don’t care. He is a gigantic loser, sleepwalking through life, through his mind-numbing job as a magazine writer, through his distant relationships with his materialistic wife and confused daughter. We suspect that maybe he’ll drink himself to death or have a heart attack or kill himself indirectly in some other way as bored suburban men tend to do. Lester, who “feels sedated,” is practically dead already. But the brilliance of American Beauty — and this will only contribute to Lester’s legend — is that by the end of the film, when death finally catches up to Lester, screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes have not only made us care that Lester is dead, they have turned his death into a tragedy of mythic proportions.

The unhappiness and hypocrisy hiding behind the pretty white picket fences of American suburbia are the chief targets at which American Beauty pokes dark, bitter fun. Lester (Kevin Spacey: The Negotiator, L.A. Confidential) and wife Carolyn (Annette Bening: The Siege) are patently miserable with each other and with their consumer lifestyle, yet both work to perpetuate it: Lester writes for a marketing trade magazine, advertising advertising, basically; Carolyn is a real-estate agent, selling her dead suburban life to others. They don’t have sex — at least, not with each other — and can barely muster anything beyond cold politeness. Neither can communicate with their 16-year-old daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who can’t recognize her own unconventional beauty and is saving her money for a breast job she clearly does not need.

Then — in what appears at first to be typical Boomer midlife crisis form — Lester is awakened from his “20-year coma” by a newfound lust for Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane’s slutty, sex-crazed friend, a pouty blonde who plans on being a model. Though Lester’s daydreams about Angela have an almost old-fashioned sweetness about them, he’s still pretty disgusting, though Jane is the only one who seems to discern that; Angela, though she keeps her distance from Lester, thinks he’s “cute.” (The audience with whom I saw American Beauty unfortunately seemed to think Lester was pretty cool, as well.)

And so (in a way that’s blackly funny and so subtly ironic that I doubt most of that aforementioned audience got it), Lester becomes even more of a loser under the influence of that lust, rewinding back into an adolescent with disdain for anything and anyone but himself. He quits his job and starts working out, he listens to his old albums and smokes pot in the garage. Lester is even more unlikable now that when we first met him, even more self-absorbed and selfish.

I doubt if anyone but the intense and mesmerizing Spacey could have navigated Lester through the complexities and ironies of American Beauty. The other characters around Lester all have their own stories, their own secrets — Carolyn; Jane; Angela; the voyeuristic neighbor boy, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who turns out to be the one character with his head on straight; Ricky’s domineering and authoritative father (Chris Cooper: October Sky, A Time to Kill, as fabulous as always) and subdued and submissive mother (the underrated and underappreciated Allison Janney: Celebrity, The Imposters) — but it’s through Lester’s interactions with them that Lester can finally emerge, in the moments before his death, as a man who has finally grown up, has finally discovered himself, has finally made peace with himself. It’s Spacey’s intelligent performance as much as the script and the direction that finally redeems Lester for us and lets us see the tragedy in his death.

Ricky, in one of American Beauty’s many astonishing moments, shows Jane the most beautiful thing he’s even seen: a video he shot of a plastic bag whirling in the eddies of a breeze. And it is beautiful. Ricky’s video shows us what Lester has discovered for himself: that beauty is found not in a drudgery that pretends to be ordinary but in the overlooked simplicity of life.

Lester comes to this profound realization too late, though he implores us in the voiceover at the end of the film not to make that same mistake. I’d guess that most of the audience with whom I saw American Beauty didn’t understand Lester, as Lester himself guesses most people won’t. While I sat stunned in my seat, unable to move, as the credits began rolling, most of the rest of the audience hopped to their feet and started filing out, saying to one another, “Wow, that was cool, that was great!” like they were getting off a roller coaster.

Lesters in the making.

[my second look at American Beauty, after its Oscar win for Best Picture]

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