American Beauty could have simply been the story of a loser and his desire to change his life. It could have starred Kevin Spacey, and he would have made the most of the role. It would have been a neat character study and probably would have spoken to people.
Or, it could have been the story of a girl who thinks she’s God’s gift to men but realizes she’s just a fake — not beautiful, but average and normal.
Perhaps the focus of the plot could have shifted to the concept of an unhappy wife of a loser who takes it upon herself to have an affair with a rival real estate agent and becomes alive again…until she’s caught.
American Beauty could have even been the story of a dysfunctional family of a gay Marine, his dope-dealing son and depressed wife. Or maybe about a relationship between a teenage girl who doesn’t think she’s attractive and the strange boy next door who thinks she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.
Any one of these plot lines alone could probably have propelled American Beauty into the celluloid subconscious it resides in today. But, screenwriter Alan Ball decided to twist all these dysfunctional traits into one neighborhood with the central character being Lester Burnham, the loser who breaks free from his pathetic existence.
American Beauty plays on all these different levels. With the characters each hiding behind a mask, they have to come to terms with who they really are and what they really want out of life. It’s all about looking closer — examining not only others around you but yourself, as well.
The visual team of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall follows Lester’s (Spacey) transition with a sense of reckless freedom that mirrors the protagonist’s wild actions. They use a rose pedal to symbolize an inch of beauty, something he has not seen for years. They let the audience in on Lester’s dream sequences to show how he’s only alive when he feels able to do what he wants to do.
In his rebellion from his wife, work and daughter, he finds peace in pot, his dream car and the 16-year-old vixen on the cheerleading squad. Whether he is a pervert or going through a midlife crisis, or simply realizing he isn’t living the life he imagined 20 years ago, his audience can relate to his plight and admire his desire to do something about it.
Lester Burnham faces what we all fear, but he handles it in such a way we could only dream. Dreams and fears drive American Beauty to a point where subconscious meets reality and tragedy meets contentment.
It’s those realizations that craft this film into a staple of our time.
Movies aren’t supposed to change people’s lives, but rather provide entertainment and perhaps instill lasting images in your mind. If anything, they should supply a conversation piece for a short while.
However, when films like American Beauty come along, they do it all, and are talked about years down the road.
Contact Will Albritton at firstname.lastname@example.org