For her second film, Jessie brought us 1999’s Best Picture winner American Beauty, the big-screen directorial debut of Sam Mendes. American Beauty is perhaps best known as the source of perhaps the most imitated movie image of all time:
No, seriously, I’ve never seen any Google Image search with a more monolithic color palette than “American Beauty”. I mean, seriously, compare the first page of “American Beauty” with the first page of “red”.
OK, “red” has a higher percentage of red, but not by much. Oh and as far as the whole “most-imitated” part goes, not all of those images are Mena Suvari. In fact, the farther one goes down the page, the more of them turn out to be random naked girls covering themselves in rose petals (but hopefully not supergluing themselves to the ceiling…)
In another not-really-related-to-the-movie note, I have to wonder if Mena Suvari holds some kind of record – she appeared in three unrelated films released in the same year which all began with the same (non-trivial) word: American Beauty, American Pie, and American Virgin. Her agent must have been going for the whole patriotic thing.
But of course, this is supposed to be about the movie. And the movie is all about Lester Burnham.
Lester Burnham is the Everyman of the film, the middle-aged American office worker who has a strained relationship with his wife, almost no relationship with his daughter, and has forgotten how to enjoy life. Also, he’ll be dead in a year. He tells us so in his very first voiceover, though, so it’s not exactly a Sunset Blvd.-type revelation when he kicks it.
Carolyn, his wife, is a frustrated realtor who has a bit of a thing for American Beauty roses. Honestly, it’s a very little thing, and while there’s a bit of visual continuity in it (especially with the consistency with which a certain yet-to-be-introduced character is associated with imaginary rose petals), one could easily miss the symbolism if not paying attention. Anyway, Carolyn outwardly professes to despise the city’s acknowledged “realty king” but by the end of the film (and with little nudging at that) she’s having an affair with the very same guy. This is a bit of a pattern.
For example Jane, his daughter, is in the midst of the stereotypical teenage rebellion thing (in much the same way that Lester enters into the stereotypical mid-life crisis). She hates her life, she hates her parents, and perhaps above all she hates the creepy guy who just moved next door and keeps videotaping her.
His name is Ricky Fitts, and outside of being the local pot dealer and a bit of a creepy guy, he’s also the kid who videotaped a plastic bag blowing around in the wind and proclaimed it the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s kind of famous. Yeah, he and Jane are also getting it on by the end of the film, no matter how much she starts out hating him.
So Lester, then. Who is Lester’s lust? It turns out to be Jane’s friend Angela, whom he first lays eyes on when he goes to see Jane’s cheerleading squad, and who (to be fair) is more than a bit flirty with him. Angela talks a good game about her sexual experiences, but turns out to be lying due to emotional insecurities. Still, Angela’s flirtation is probably the trigger that really brings on Lester’s mid-life crisis, wherein he gets himself fired (albeit in such a way that he blackmails a year’s severance pay), starts working out, and starts smoking pot that he’s buying from Ricky.
And he starts working at the drive-thru. Lester discovers Carolyn’s infidelity when she shows up at the window playing kissy-face with the realty king. Lester is pretty cool about it, all things considered. He’s even trying (though unsuccessfully, to be sure) to get back into Jane’s good graces. He wouldn’t have succeeded (at least not immediately), but his efforts are cut a bit short by this guy:
This is Colonel Fitts, Ricky’s dad. Being a military man, he is virulently homophobic (gee, it’s a good thing this movie doesn’t use stereotypes, or anything!) He’s also quite the disciplinarian with Ricky, often beating him bloody for no particularly good reason. Due to a cleverly-placed-window-divider trick while spying, he mistakes Ricky’s sale of pot to Burnham while he’s working out in his garage for a sexual encounter. He beats Ricky silly for being gay and kicks him out of the house. And while Ricky is upstairs at Lester’s house successfully convincing Jane to run away with him, Colonel Fitts is down in the garage, unsuccessfully trying to convince the not-gay Burnham to give him some nookie. See? He’s homophobic, but he’s gay! (It’s original, I promise. OK, I lied.)
Then, Lester goes inside to get propositioned by Angela, who happens to be over for a sleepover or something. Of course, Jane isn’t going to notice, because she’s in the middle of planning to run away with Ricky, remember? Lester is getting more offers than he’s had in the past decade over the course of ten minutes and this second one was going to be the one he took up – until the normally saucy Angela confessed to her virginity. Why that particular fact should dissuade him from the statutory crime he was perfectly willing to commit otherwise isn’t 100% clear, but maybe it made him come to his senses.
And mere minutes after Burnham makes his final redemptive move (one which he regrets not in the least), he’s shot dead by the Colonel. Presumably he didn’t want Burnham to blab about his dirty little secret, but it’s not explained. The important thing is that in the end, Lester died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing all along – living.
American Beauty is a funny film. It’s full of stereotypes, and sometimes the plot seems a bit contrived. Yet for all that, it’s a well-made film, and on a second viewing the shortcuts stand out less and Lester Burnham stands out more. On my first viewing, I had absolutely no sympathy for Lester whatsoever. Quitting his job, smoking a bunch of pot, pedophiliacally lusting after his daughter’s friend – I just didn’t see him as having any redeeming qualities, and as such I didn’t think much of the film. Some ten years later, my view of Burnham changed entirely. He’s not perfect, but in his own way he’s trying to better himself and by the end of the film he has reached almost an ultimate state of being at peace with himself – right down to the moment when, smiling broadly, he’s killed with an unexpected bullet to the back of the head.
Herodotus in his Histories tells of a visit that the Athenian lawgiver Solon takes to the Kingdom of Croesus, the richest man in the world. Croesus gives Solon the grand tour, and then asks Solon to consider who is the happiest man in the world, expecting to hear the proclamation that Croesus himself must be. But Solon gives another answer, telling of a man who died content. “Count no man happy until he is dead” is the adage, and it warns against the turns of fortune that might bring a happy man to sorrow. But we can easily look at it from the opposite side – a man who dies content can suffer no further misfortune, and is blessed for it. Lester Burnham is one of those men.