At the Movies with Alan Gekko: American Beauty

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Scott Bakula/ Runtime: 122 minutes

I feel it must be said that Sam Mendes may in fact be that one terrific director out there who doesn’t normally come up when film fans discuss the world’s finest directors. Yes he may have gotten an Oscar for the movie we’re discussing today as well as a nod for his war epic 1917, and he may have singlehandedly revitalized the James Bond franchise as we know it with Skyfall, but for some unfathomable reason this individual is still not put in the same discussion as people like Spielberg or even Tarantino. Suffice it to say however that this is an aspect that needs to change. This is because not only are all his movies that he has made not only magnificently done, but also because they all manage to really provoke an audience by giving them something to think about, but the subject matter for his movies are quite complex as well.

Indeed it may be too much on the nose therefore to call Mendes’ film American Beauty “a thing of beauty,” but that’s exactly what it is. Indeed this is a film which offers up a detailed analysis on what it is that really truly is the definition of beauty and elegance in our day to day lives, but also serves as a lamentation on the sadly immense lack of genuine beauty that has been seemingly replaced by society due to society not really focusing anymore on what lies on the inside, but more about how an individual appears on the outside. Indeed in many ways society has deliberately chosen to do away with inner beauty, and done so due to those wonderful concepts of materialism, popularity, and just people being closed-minded in general. Indeed that is the message this film is trying its hardest to convey and when this strong foundation is built upon by a sense of direction that is both wonderfully reserved, but still quite phenomenal, work in the cinematography department that is truly second to none, a musical score that is truly transcendent, and a group of powerhouse performances that all manage to do a wonderful job of getting right to what this picture is trying to convey, American Beauty is the kind of film that will take you on a odyssey that is an opportunity to see just how things are in the world around us as shown to us through the lives of several suburbanites as they begin to fall apart at the seams. Indeed it may be depressing in a lot of ways, but it’s also quite beautiful both of the inner and outer variety. You just have to be willing to…look closer….

The plot is as follows: American Beauty tells the story of a man by the name of Lester Burnham who suffice it to say possesses what would be considered by many to be a quite doldrum, run-of-the-mill suburban life. Also worth noting is the facts that, according to his own narration at the beginning of the film, he is 42 years of age, and he at one time was a very content individual, but has since fallen hard into a midlife crisis. Oh and one other tiny little detail: apparently he will be deceased in under a year. Lester is married to a woman by the name of Carolyn who makes a living as a real estate agent albeit not exactly the best one in the world and is dad to a girl named Jane whose only priority in life is saving up enough money for a boob job (oh teenage woes). Suffice it to say their dynamic as a family is already on shaky ground even before the story begins, but things soon start to hit a crucial point of no return when Lester starts developing a crush of sorts on Jane’s best friend Angela, Carolyn starts giving the eye to a soon-to-be-divorced local real estate mogul, and Jane, while dealing with the fact that her dad wants the company of her best friend, slowly starts to see that maybe the new neighbor’s son Ricky isn’t quite the strange individual that he is perceived as being by most who encounter him. Thus with the walls starting to close in the question starts to come into focus: does this estranged family have what it takes to make it through this hazardous odyssey of self-discovery, or will their trenched-in facade that has been constructed for the longest time on the desire to have outward elegance, prosperity, approval, and confidence totally obliterate any of the elegance that is still there, despite being placed under wraps, within?

Now a deceased bird, the corpse of someone who just died, and a plastic bag floating aimlessly in the wind. This is not a sick game of “Guess the Connection”; rather these are some of the seemingly randomesque items that are seen by this movie as being representatives of the most gorgeous things in the entire world. Yet who are we to argue because after all: isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Indeed the reason I mention them is because I feel that this film is a representation of the seemingly constant tug of war between the pair of quite different ideas that people have for what constitutes as “beautiful”. There’s the type that is defined by wealth, material goods, power, privilege, and position in life, but there’s also another type as well. This is the type that chooses to look at how things organically are as the one, true form of beauty in the world around us that the materialistic definition seems hell-bent on seeing forgotten. Indeed to many a person the items that this film discusses would not fit what they see as “beautiful” in any way, but again that is your interpretation of beauty and beauty as well know is subjective. However this film isn’t just about that; rather this is a film which finds the characters in it trying in vain to find the things that are truly beautiful about the lives they lead instead of those things which simply provide them with a degree of comfort or satisfaction. However as our group of characters slowly start to attempt to try and locate the “life behind a thing”, they will also start to realize not only that their “perfect life” isn’t as fulfilling as they have tried to make everyone including themselves believe, but also that they are beginning to unravel when it comes to the superficial illusion that they project for the world to see. Indeed this is a film which chooses to immerse itself in subtleties of both a spiritual and psychological nature that ultimately help showcase just what the narrative is trying to tell us while also showing just how magnificently crafted this film truly was by not only the director, but also the creative teams both in front and behind the camera as well.

Now in regards to the work done behind the camera, I definitely feel that this movie manages to both look and sound absolutely amazing and really does flow fairly well especially in regards to the concepts that the film grapples with. Indeed this is a movie which manages to work as a perfect look at how to best mix concepts that are slightly heavier as well as more complicated alongside a very light colored visual schematic alongside performances that also have a bit of an odd sense of vibrancy to them as well. I also feel that American Beauty, in addition to everything else, is also a movie that deals a lot in the art of individuals discovering themselves, but also redemption and being able to comprehend the differences between inner beauty and being who everyone wants us to be on the outside as showcased through the point of view of a group of lost souls. Yet Mendes manages to design this movie in a manner that still accomplishes the important task of locating the concepts that are crucial to the narrative. Indeed American Beauty manages to really place its conflicted and troubled characters against a background that for the majority of the film is vibrant and quite colorful. Yet it is really truly only in the moments where things get stormy or bleak in the film that the characters not only start to see the lives they have lived for the way they truly are both the good and the ill, but they also manage to come to grips with the parts of who they are that were hidden away a long time ago that could really aid them in their attempts to break free of the superficiality that their lives have strongly started to be defined with. Suffice it to say then that Mendes most certainly shows that he has earned the right to be called one of present day’s top filmmakers in the way he so magnificently conjures up this picture while also managing to showcase quite a few significant concepts within the 122 minute runtime.

Now in addition to all the other attributes that we mentioned, it is also definitely worth noting that American Beauty also is a fantastic showcase for a top-notch cast who is most certainly willing to showcase this narrative’s weighty concepts as well as why they matter in the world around us. Indeed the whole cast really does seem to capture phenomenally well the idea that they are playing a group of individuals who are both extremely dysfunctional, but also focused solely on themselves. Thus, this film asks, are characters like these the true representatives for what society nowadays truly looks like? Honestly I don’t really know, but what I do know is that this cast does manage to pull off quite well the ability to make an audience strongly feel that they are these people and that, when you get right down to it, most of the world does seem to exist in this kind of flawed, and oblivious to everyone else, but themselves kind of bubble.

This mass of talent of course starts with Kevin Spacey and yes I know that is not something we have heard in the past few years and rightfully so. At the time this movie was released however, things were different and Spacey was known as an actor before anything more unpleasant. As such Spacey in the lead role in this manages to do an amazing job in his turn as a family man who finds himself suffering from a mid-life crisis that is painfully exacerbated by both his doldrum job and his hen-pecked existence at home. Yet when he is given what he sees as an intriguing opportunity, Spacey does also manage to showcase phenomenally well the emotional regression Lester displays in the form of acting more like a love-stricken 15-year-old teenager whose grand ambition in life is no more and no less than getting with the most beautiful girl in school and spending time with her in his gorgeous brand-new car. We also get wonderful work here from Annette Bening as Lester’s wife Carolyn. Indeed Bening manages to pull off quite magnificently a sense of being the kind of irritating that only someone who can pull off both screeching and overbearing at the same time can provide to a person’s life. Yet Bening manages to also brilliantly showcase that, in addition to those things, Carolyn is also a career-oriented woman who can’t quite come to grips with the fact that her life both professionally and personally is escaping her no matter how hard she tries to keep it in her grasp. Indeed it’s not the easiest performance in the world to pull off, due to not exactly being the most inherently likable character in the world, but Bening manages to make it work beautifully. Yet even with this pair of intriguing performances in play, I do feel that this film’s whole case does a wonderful job of managing to work together at showcasing a diverse group of people who all have one thing in common whether they know it or not. That thing would of course be the fact that they are all looking for who they are as individuals in a world that doesn’t seem to really care as much as they would like to hope.

All in all American Beauty is a well-cast and well-constructed film that is that rare breed of movie which manages to not just keep you entertained whilst you are watching it, but it also manages to plant some quite profound things to ponder in regards not only to the complexities of how we as people behave as well as the divide between what is real and what is imagined. Indeed upon completing this film, it is my distinct belief that anyone who watches it will take a moment to really think about their lives as well as those of the individuals closest to them. Above all though I think if anything this movie will result in people doing one thing above anything else. That one thing will be to always look closer….On a scale of 1-5 I give American Beauty a solid 4 out of 5.