Great Films on Amazon Prime: “American Beauty” stands the test of time

Andrew White Cleary, Chief Copy Editor

The eccentric tragicomedy “American Beauty” is a brilliant and complex work. Alan Ball’s screenplay contains enough ideas for several motion pictures. Despite the intricacy of its plot, the film, largely from the excellent direction of Sam Mendes, does not become overly contrived. The lives of its various characters not only unfold in ways that allow for much humor, but intertwine to great poignancy. The work’s many puzzle pieces are thematically connected to each other, and by the ending have fallen masterfully into place.

The film’s first act introduces us to the suburban setting in which the Burnham family, and others, live. The storyline following Lester, an advertising executive in the midst of a midlife crisis, is concurrent with those of his daughter Jane, his spouse Carolyn (who in one of the film’s few weaknesses is rather thinly drawn), and their neighbor Ricky. Beneath the affluence this family is miserable. Boredom is everywhere, whether arising from the mundanity of Lester’s work, his failing marriage, or Jane’s poor relationship with him. But when Lester first sees Angela, a classmate of Jane, it is as though new purpose has been brought instantly into his monotonous daily life.

In one sequence, figurative roses fall upon the bed of the infatuated Lester, with an almost fully exposed Angela lying at the ceiling in the middle of a pool of these roses. This idiosyncratic visual representation of Lester’s state of affairs is highly effective. The roses are an example of a directorial flourish that shows emotion without introducing excessive sentimentality; as a romantic symbol they have grace. The seraphic music is similarly appropriate, conveying how to him she appears to be something in the heavens. This, along with Lester’s genial smile, is able to convince the viewer that, despite the unmistakable carnality to the nature of his attraction, it is perhaps tinged with some affection, or at least is not predatory. Consequently our sympathy for him does not fully disappear, and he remains a reasonably developed character.

The dislike of social mores and other expectations is a ubiquitous theme of the first half-hour, laying the groundwork for a comedic second act in which many frustrations and repressed desires of the characters are fulfilled simultaneously; it is a manic, restless half-hour of improper actions done in ebullience. The bored docility of the characters in the beginning, and the use of several different storylines about the subsequent rebellion against it rather than one, make the second act almost a revolution. Because the characters are now doing whatever they wish and achieving unprecedented individuality while remaining believable in their actions, these scenes successfully move forward multiple character arcs – and, more importantly, are powerful in their implications.

In one of these scenes, for instance, Lester is looking forward to his firing and reveling in the irreverence of his remarks to his boss. Brad last appeared near the film’s beginning, attempting to abate Lester’s anxiety around the possibility of the latter’s firing. That Brad is now reintroduced to us as one taken aback by the protagonist’s shameless vulgarity is brilliantly acerbic plotting. While the sequence is memorable as a highly humorous exchange of dialogue – Lester has an amusing spontaneity and wit, and his sheer subversion of expectations, bolstered by the glib delivery of Kevin Spacey, generates comic relief while developing the main protagonist – the scene succeeds most of all as a jarring solidification of how severely Lester’s worldview and priorities have changed. It is potent in its abruptness, in how a character who once acted simply as a frustrated father is now so unapologetically showing who he truly is.

“We are what we pretend to be,” Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The adults in “American Beauty” wish to throw the life of acquiescence and forced uniformity away; it is in with freedom and (ostensible) fulfillment. What seem to them the only chances at great happiness are things which go against social customs – a relationship with a high school student, a second adulterous affair, et cetera. There is often the sense of social structures being flouted dangerously, of a distant but inevitably approaching consequence for all of this jubilant defiance. When storm clouds gather, both metaphorically and literally, it is not a surprise.

All things considered, the final 40 minutes of “American Beauty” are a devastating balancing act of comic and tragic elements: of beautifully intertwining motivations and actions, of epiphanies in some characters and unfortunate misunderstandings in others. Concurrent with the characters’ actions is an unremitting downpour of rain outside, contributing fittingly to a frenzied and agitated – and portentous – tone, which lies in stark contrast to the suburban farce that came before.

In one late sequence, Lester and Angela embrace as Annie Lennox’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” plays. The music is deeply appropriate. Two characters are finally finding what they want – or, that is, what they think they want. The song likewise operates on a large scale musically, reinforcing the climactic nature of the scene, and could be a soundtrack for a cloud-nine state, a feeling of infinite possibilities. On this rainy night, Lester realizes the difference between superficial beauty (Angela’s body) and genuine beauty (the love and company of a wife and children), but immediately after is fatally shot by Ricky’s father, Frank.

Excellence in tragedy generally results from the character’s downfall being brought about by his or her own serious faults. The suspicions of Frank, who mistakenly thought that Lester and Ricky were involved in a homosexual relationship, are clearly meant throughout the work to be one of the film’s comic elements. Because of this, one might initially feel that Lester’s death by Frank’s hands is an undesirable intrusion of a comic storyline into something which aspires for tragic stature, a failed attempt at profundity and pathos. However, Frank’s suspicions were fortified the most by a misinterpreted video of Lester working out so that his relationship with Angela could progress further, and as a result it can indeed be said that Lester’s own actions brought about his downfall, if of course not intentionally. The work then remains a moving and astute tragic saga. He described himself in his irregular, careless second encounter with Brad as “an ordinary guy with nothing to lose”; in his last moments, it is abundantly clear that he knows otherwise.

“American Beauty” is a masterful study of the tricks played by superficial things and the continuous lack of attention to what truly matters at the end of the day – how what is on the surface does not necessarily represent something’s ultimate quality. Sam Mendes is shrewd and inventive in his direction of what perhaps remains one of the greatest screenplays in cinematic history.