American Beauty, the 1999 film directed by Sam Mendes, beautifully portrays the ironic hypocrisy of the American Dream through the descent of Lester Burnham, a burnt out middle-aged man facing his mid-life crisis. With a budget of about $15 million, the movie captured the public, grossing over $356 million worldwide. The chemistry, or lack of, between Kevin Spacey starring as Lester and Annette Bening as Carolyn Burnham, Lesters estranged wife, managed to pull viewers into their very familiar yet undesired tumultuous marriage, while Thora Birchs portrayal of their daughter, Jane, added to the tension which eventually led to the demise of their once happy family. As a two hour prelude to Lesters sudden death, American Beauty truly comments upon the definition of beauty in the long perceived concept of the American Dream, and its role within the American people.
From the very beginning, Mendes creates an extraordinary introduction to Lesters life, full of tension. From the exterior, Lesters neighborhood looks like the perfect suburban destiny for white-collar workers in single family homes. Carolyn snips rose bushes outside, tending to the garden as the outside of the house looks beautiful, from the coveted white picket fence to the shutter windows. Lesters narration also welcomes us into his life, with a friendly tone. We feel like we know him - a perfect family in the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood. However, we suddenly transition to a shot of Lester masturbating in the shower, and with a hint of sarcasm and a dash of cynicism, we see very quickly that Lesters life is less than ideal. This will be the high point of my day, he proclaims. Mendes throws us into the unhappiness that is hidden behind the materialism, a theme that will persist throughout the film, especially as the family interacts.
For example, when the family is having dinner, the videography highlights the happy family photos that show Lester, Carolyn, and Jane as the perfect family before transitioning to a still shot of the family, silently eating dinner, all with frowns on their faces. Mendes production truly does this juxtaposition justice as the awkward tension and implied conflict is so apparent that the viewer can only understand the lack of positive dynamic. Or later, when Lester is trying to respark the romance in his relationship with Carolyn, Carolyn almost gets pulled into the sexual tension, but instead becomes overly concerned that Lester will spill his wine onto the couch, made from expensive Italian fabric. And throughout this contrast, Mendes utilizes the perfect soundtrack of silence and slightly monotonous music to highlight this awkwardness and tension between the family.
And finally, the intrigue of the entire movie, the shocker: Lesters relationship with Angela Hayes, played by Mena Suvari, Janes best friend. Angela herself is a symbol of beauty, with her constant boasting of her budding modeling career or exaggerated sexual escapades, and Lester finds himself dreaming about her, wishing to excite his dull live with her brilliance. The entire film, Angela is contrasted with Jane, her goth counterpart, and Janes growing relationship with Ricky Fitts, her outcast neighbor. Ricky has a fascination with beauty; however, his videography focuses on what would be considered the ugly of the world - for example, a plastic bag, floating in the wind. This theme is continued throughout the film, from the odd imagery in the cinematography to Lesters face as blood drips down the bullet wound in his forehead. And in the finale, we see that that beauty is not defined by being pretty, but rather having flaws. These flaws are those that make us interesting.
Mendes criticism of the stereotypical definition of beauty comes in an unordinary fashion, but is effective in truly communicating with the public the faults that come with pursuing the so-called American Dream over what truly makes people happy. And in the odd soundtrack, odd imagery, odd characters and odd plot, we realize that it is really the odd things in life that are beautiful, from those who live unusual lives to the usual things we donít usually take notice too. American Beauty is a very real culmination of the epitome of everything wrong with the American Dream, and the film is an artistically combined piece that very much represents the sentiments of the most regular of people.
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