“I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.”
These are the reflections of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) as he lies in his marital bed, fanaticising over his daughter’s best friend. This infatuation may not be morally or socially sound, but in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) it is essentially a catalyst toward an awakening from suburban slumber, middle-class bourgeois ideas of “beauty” and the pursuit of personal satisfaction. In a world that is becoming more ironic at the close of the millennium, American Beauty’s uninhibited amalgamation of middle-class satire and perspectives of beauty goes some way in side-lining the question of where we go from here.
It’s interesting to consider the differing interpretations of the film; some critics view it as pure satire, whilst others view it as a reaffirmation of the meaning of life. What makes American Beauty stand out as a film of its time is its refusal to truly land on either interpretation, instead opting to encourage debate, introspection and the pursuit of meaning. This non-conformist element is omnipresent throughout the film as characters fidget uncomfortably within their expected suburban roles, with Lester providing some of the biggest laughs as well as the biggest shocks in his deconstruction of the role that has gradually imprisoned him.
After his “awakening”, he takes great pleasure in dismantling his adulthood by quitting his job, buying “toys” for himself and smoking weed in accommodating his lustful yet vague ambitions regarding his daughter’s friend. Writer Alan Ball doesn’t seem to be making generalisations on a mid-life crisis, but rather, offers a representation of a man reaching the top rung of the suburban ladder and seeing that the only place left to go is back down. This seems to speak larger volumes about mankind’s relentless search for meaning in life than the active disregard of suburbia itself.
After allowing the suburban image to fester over 50 years, it would be natural to wonder what else there is, or perhaps what else there was. Lester seems to revert to and attempt to recreate what he might view as the happiest, most carefree time of his life: his adolescence. However, the presence and characterisation of his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and her aggressive contempt toward her social surroundings undermine Lester’s idolisation of youth.
Although the two characters at times represent opposite ends of the generational spectrum, they both share a cynical disinterest in conforming to the image preservation of picturesque suburban ideals. Whether it’s Lester’s dry sarcasm and outright mocking of his wife Carolyn’s (Annette Bening) desperate dependency on image and professionalism, or Jane’s blossoming relationship with neighbourhood “weirdo” Ricky (Wes Bentley), the two characters represent the yearning for personal satisfaction on their own terms.
Perhaps the main underlying message of the film is the most obvious and subsequently parodied image of a plastic bag caught in the wind, caught on camera by Ricky and referred to as “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever filmed. It’s perfectly fine for audiences to scoff at such a scene and fail to see the beauty that Ricky firmly believes in, as the old phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” comes to mind. Although it’s a clichéd phrase that Ricky perhaps wouldn’t use himself, its simplicity and retained personal truth dissuades overthinking and allows its meaning to transcend the words.
American Beauty offers depictions of suburban satire, desperate mid-life crisis and non-conformity without needing to land on any answers of where we go from here. The message seems to encourage individual ideas of what beauty can be and that personal belief is worth holding onto in order for us to make sense of our world.
As Lester says after his death, “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world”, it’s up to us to find our own meaning of beauty and cherish it. Regarding the question of where else we can go, the answer doesn’t seem nearly as important as the lens through which we view it. Perhaps we’ve reached the point at which suburbia itself can only be viewed through a lens of rose-tinted irony. We are aware of its aesthetic beauty, yet wary of its dwindling accommodation of personal identity.