The American Dream is deeply satirised in Sam Mendes absurdly comical American Beauty, largely indebted to Alan Ball’s deliciously cynical screenplay. Every character has a façade in this modern classic although protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) gently realises his life is as superficial and insignificant as the next person’s and seeks to confront it. Posthumously narrating the film, Lester details the events leading up to his demise in a profound vantage point that delves into the empty monotony that was his existence before his evident mid-life crisis. Soon he experiences a progressive sense of genuine fulfilment though consequentially carries the burden of a now tarnished role of husband and father. A notable emblem employed throughout the film is the precise use of the colour red: rose petals, blood, Lester’s newly purchased sports car, and the Burham’s front door add a layer of symbolic representation, diverging from the usual realist aesthetic attached to social dramas.
All of the characters gravitate around Lester to some degree, deploying differing social attitudes, anxieties and frustrations emblematic of Middle America. Lester’s infatuation with a Lolita-esque friend of his daughter, his neighbour’s repressed secret, and his wife’s affair compromise the nature of outward appearances and cultural commodification which make up the foundation of daily life in Mende’s America. The film’s tagline “… look closer” asks audiences to question the shallow attitude of their own neighbourhood and come to terms with what is lurking in the shadows.
Retrospectively, this portrait of suburban American life pre-millennium may appear somewhat clichéd with the overwhelming abundance of imitators that have come since its release; however, the blend of sincere issues, cinematic opulence, and startling performances still remains significantly compelling. Without American Beauty we would be devoid of numerous references within films, advertisements and TV programmes; for instance, whether the similar omniscient posthumous narration of Desperate Housewives would materialise without the aide of American Beauty is very much contested.
The first film from British-theatre-turned-film-director Mendes bagged him the Best Director Academy Award, and since this feat has continued to create a body of critically and commercially successful features. Skyfall’s popularity may have cemented Mendes name within contemporary audiences, but it should remain that American Beauty is his masterpiece and most accomplished work, potentially as a consequence to the films and director’s close ties to theatre. A love film with a slant, American Beauty offers a fascinating and perplex probe into authentic and unrefined sentiments. Love is witnessed as a destructive and all-encompassing force, whilst beauty is divulged primarily from nature.
words: Tomas Badger
image: Bristle’s Film Posters