Film Review: American Beauty

American Beauty, the directorial debut of Sam Mendes is a thought-provoking account of one man's reawakening to the potential that life holds. The movie focuses on the final years in the life of a man named Lester Burnham going through a mid-life crisis and his physical and spiritual revitalization.

Kevin Spacey acts as Lester Burnham, a marketing executive approaching middle-age who seems to have a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. He lives in a nice neighbourhood, has an ambitious still-attractive real-estate spouse Carolyn Burnham, and a teenage daughter, Jane. At the age of 42, he has become apathetic and lethargic to everything. 'Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser,' he confesses at one point, 'And they're right. I have lost something. I didn't always feel this sedated.'

Meanwhile, Carolyn, places such value on status that she has turned into a 'bloodless, money-grubbing freak' who has no time for any form of intimacy. Her creed: 'You cannot count on anyone except yourself.' She is obsessed with success and material acquisition and putting up the picture of a perfect family. She and Lester continue in their dead marriage for their daughter's sake and so they'll look normal to the outside world. In a moment of clarity, Lester admits, 'Our marriage is just for show - a commercial for how normal we are, when we're anything but.'

He has an icy relationship with his teenage daughter who barely speaks to him. In the very beginning of the movie, she is being filmed by an unidentified person, later revealed as her boyfriend Ricky and she wishes upon the death of her perverted father and the boy asks whether he should kill her father for her. In the transition scene, Lester informs us that he will be dead within a year, in a voiceover.

Lester upon the insistence of his wife goes to the local school basketball game at which Jane is a cheerleader, where he is instantly struck by the beauty of his daughter’s friend, Angela, a seductive sixteen-year-old blonde. Angela knows exactly what her sexual charm is and delights in it but deep down she is plagued by low self-esteem and real-teenager insecurities. Lester’s ennui is transformed into an infatuation for Angela which prompts him to change his life completely. Already under threat of redundancy, Lester uses an opportunity to argue for his job to make it a certainty that he is dismissed — but not without using blackmail to negotiate a pay-off in excess of a year’s wages.

Jane, who's caught between the two of them is disgusted at her father’s interest in her friend. Displeased with her physical appearance, she is saving up for breast augmentation surgery. As the film progresses, she develops an unusual relationship with Ricky Fitts, the boy next door. He is a loner, who secretly sells pot and voyeuristic. He views life through a video camera, and, when he first trains his lens on Jane, she is creeped out. After a while, however, she feels flattered, and, following a particularly brutal encounter with her parents, she slowly undresses in front of a window while Ricky watches. Ricky has his own problems - his mother is almost withdrawn from life, in a state of catatonia and his father is an ex-Marine, uptight and abusive, who watches Ricky’s ever move. He even submits his son's urine for drug testing every six months after he was caught doing drugs. Meanwhile, Jane also has to deal with Angela's growing fascination with the possibility of sleeping with Lester - a consideration that disgusts her.

Lester befriends Ricky, buys pot from him and embarks on a journey to capture his youth. He starts working out after overhearing Angela mention to Jane that he would be sexy if he got himself in shape and listens to seventies music. But Lester’s new outlook on life has an unexpected influence on all those around him. He quits his job from which he was about to be fired anyway. He fantasies run wild as he pictures Angela immersed in a bathtub full of rose petals. Carolyn is baffled by her husband’s newfound attitude and ends up having an affair with a fellow realtor. Tensions arises in the family as, Lester, Carolyn and Jane, each confronts their own issues and follows their own agendas.

Colonel Fitts abhors homosexuals and suspects that Lester and Ricky are having an affair and that Lester is paying Ricky of sexual favours. He is furious and goes to confront Lester and ends up kissing him, revealing his latent homosexuality. He feels humiliated and goes back home. His tirade against homosexuality was actually a cover up for his repressed desires.

The movie reaches its climax when Lester finds out that Angela is a virgin and puts an end to his advances. He chats up with Angela and asks her about his daughter and she gives him positive reports. He is overwhelmed when he looks at the family picture and encounters an epiphanic moment. He was trapped in a life devoid of meaning and passion. However, he finally awakes to his reality and takes responsibility for his happiness. The epiphanic moments happens right before his death but it made all the difference, making him cheerful and at peace. Just then he is shot dead by an unidentified person which is later revealed as Colonel Fitts through flashbacks.

In the final scene, Lester in the voiceover reveals to us the beauty that the world holds. He thinks of each happy memory he shared with his family. There is a montage of moments that flashed before his eyes right before his death. It’s those tiny insignificant moments that encapsulates so much beauty and leaves him peaceful.

01 August 2022
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