American Beauty

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    Oct 09, 2013
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The 1999 Academy Award winning movie ``American Beauty`` is a drama film which shows us how a perfect family living in the beautiful suburbs can really turn out to be. It proves how little we know about what really goes on inside the walls of the perfect household. One of the opening scenes of the movie starts with a view of Lester Burnham, his attractive, blonde wife Carolyn Burnham and their daughter Jane. The movie begins with a shot of a young teenage girl Jane (Thora Birch), through a video camera. She is talking about how she wants her father dead because he is a pervert who is in love with all of her friends. The girl considers her dad ``too embarrassing to live``. 

Jane is sixteen-year-old, she despises her parents and has a very low self-esteem. She was lacking a supportive environment while growing up. However, she undergoes a transformation of her own when she falls for her neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is very romantic and who sees beauty where you would least expect to find it. For example, he shows Jane video of a plastic bag swirling around the wind and describes it as ``the most beautiful thing I`ve ever filmed``.  Ricky`s love for Jane decreases her depression and increases her self-confidence. Jane does not have a good relationship with her mother as well.

For instance, she asks her daughter as she is on her way to school: ``Are you trying to look unattractive?`` Carolyn is an ambitious real estate agent, mother and wife who is completely obsessed by the importance of projecting and maintaining the perfect image. She also thinks that it is necessary for her family to hold up to her perfectionist standards as well. 

Afterwards, this original movie, directed by Sam Mendes, introduces the audience to Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), an ordinary-looking man in his forties. It is evident that he is desperate. Lester`s monotonous voice introduces us to his daily routine of life.  When Lester says simply: ``This is my neighborhood, this is my street, this is my life``, he exposes the unhappiness to which he has become accustomed. Lester works as an advertising representative and he hates his job. Lester and his wife Carolyn (Anette Bening) seem like they have an ideal marriage. However, they have a lot of marriage problems. All in all, Lester is a desperate and frustrated man who cannot confront his wife, does not have any respect from his daughter, and has no control over the events that occur in his life.

But, he soon decides to leave the role of the victim and replaces his job at the magazine with a job at the fast food restaurant while blackmailing his previous boss to give him a large sum of money to buy the car of his dreams. His wife, Carolyn, has an affair with one of her colleagues and her husband accidently discovers her infidelity. But, he reacts very composedly. Carolyn`s lover ends the affair.  Lester finds another source of inspiration. He becomes infatuated with his daughter`s friend Angela (Mena Suvari), after seeing her cheerleading performance at a high school basketball game.  He often has sexual fantasies about her, during which red rose petals are constant motif.  He wants to abandon everything he has for the chance to sleep with this blond American princess. He even starts strenuous physical exercising after he overhears Angela telling his daughter that she would find Lester attractive if he improved his looks.

Lester also befriends his neighbor, Jane`s friend, a teenage boy Ricky and starts purchasing marijuana from him. Ricky`s mother is a very submissive and passive woman. On the other hand, Ricky`s father Frank (Chris Cooper) tries to submit his son to a strict military lifestyle. He is a retired United States Marine Corps Colonel who is not aware of the fact (or does not want to be aware) that his son is a secret marijuana smoker and drug dealer.

Ricky has also spent some time in a mental hospital. He likes to record his neighborhood with his camera and he keeps many taped videos in his bedroom. Frank accidently finds Ricky`s footage of Lester doing exercises while naked, and he wrongly comes to a conclusion that his son has engaged in a homosexual relationship with Lester. Ricky admits to false accusation and Frank orders him to leave the family home. Ricky convinces Jane to go with him to New York. Frank challenges Lester and tries to kiss him. Lester rejects the colonel and he goes away. Lester finds a very upset Angela who tries to seduce him. He finds out that Angela is really a virgin, although she lies continually about sexual encounters with many men.

Although Lester gets his opportunity to take advantage of Angela`s infatuation, he can`t go through with it. He realizes that she is not the experienced woman that he has envisioned her to be and he sees that she actually reminds him of his daughter. Lester tries to console Angela and they have a sincere conversation. Angela goes to the bathroom and Lester smiles at a family photograph of himself, Carolyn and Jane. They all looked very happy.  Suddenly, we hear a gunshot sounds, we see blood stains on the wall and Carolyn crying in the bedroom.

Beside himself, Frank returns home, smeared with Lester`s blood. Lester`s final narration depicts significant and lovely periods and moments in his life. He concludes that he is happy, regardless of his death, because there is so much beauty in this world.


It seems that Lester and Carolyn have fulfilled their American dream. They are well-off, they are both employed, they have a beautiful daughter and a beautiful house. You see a married man and a father of one. Look closer. You see an unhappy, numb person who despises his wife and what his life has turned into. You see a married woman and a mother of one. 

Look closer. You see a shallow, rude person who will do anything it takes to portray the image of success, even if it hurts her own family. ``The American Dream`` presents that dream of ordinary American people in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone. Families are usually dysfunctional because mother and father work a lot and neglect their children. As a result, children have many emotional and psychological problems. Lester and Carolyn might really have been in love a long time ago. But now, they live in a loveless marriage.

Carolyn`s perfectionism, snobbism, insincerity and greed have destroyed their love. Besides, hard work, a soulless surrounding and an increasingly rapid pace of life have destroyed their love as well. The director helps us look closer through the video camera that Ricky uses.  It lets us see two views of the same situation, allowing us to depict it and see the inside of it,  the truth behind the images of characters, which in all the scenes are completely different from the outside. The filming always occurs inside the home, which seems symbolical, since the outside view is so different.

Ricky mainly focuses on Jane, who in the beginning acts as if she doesn`t want to be recorded. She often walks away from the camera, or asks him to stop filming. But, at one point the camera focuses in on Jane after she walks away, and it actually catches her break into a little smile. It proves that she really liked the attention Ricky was giving her. Mendes uses two more symbolic forms of showing the view to look closer as well: roses and the color of red.  Throughout the film red rose petals appear when Lester dreams about Angela. As the camera focuses on Angela, roses start to fall from the sky and you see a look of complete desire and infatuation in Lester`s eyes. There are also red roses on the center of dinner table.

These roses are a sign of perfection. However, American Beauty roses are engineered, and have no scent to them, which is no perfect after all. Besides, their family dinners often end in upright anger. The roses, as well as the red door to the Burnhams home, seem to signify happiness, when inside their home is nothing but that. The camera focusing in on the red blood after Lester is shot seems to be very ironic as well, since when Lester dies, he does so happily, yet blood is usually associated with pain.

This movie is so powerful because it brought to light the problems that so many American families face in the privacy of their homes. Many Americans are obsessed with wealth and beauty. They work hard and they think that they can buy this American dream. When we imagine a successful person, we see a person who is busy working all the time. That notion of success has not changed much since the beginning of  the last century.

There happened some variations, but the idea stayed the same: working hard will bring you to the top of the society circle. Working hard will enable you to have a beautiful house and a beautiful wife. When people fulfill their American dream they are disappointed because of total family alienation. We see strangers who live in the same house.  This happens because people forget that honesty, sincerity and closeness among family members are real values. These values should be American dream.  In fact, everyone should pursue this dream.

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