“I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.”
The famous painting American Gothic by Grant Wood was heralded as an instant classic for capturing the essence of rural America in the 30s. Despite some exaggerated features, people lauded the realism—with one exception. The people of rural Iowa—the very people depicted in the painting—hated the piece, with some even threatening violence against Wood. It may have hit a little too close to home for them, or it may have been too exaggerated in their minds, but whatever the reason, the portrait made them uncomfortable.
In many ways, American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) and starring Kevin Spacey, provides a similar, albeit darker, caricature of American life in the 90s, chronicling a time when the American dream seemed to die. We’re shown a cast of characters each trying to live out their own American dreams, and it’s not flattering—in fact, it’s very uncomfortable to watch. The ennui and discontent of knowing that even “making it” will never give sufficient meaning to life is stated eloquently in this movie, attempting to explain a decade characterized by apathy and resentment. As I said, it’s uncomfortable—but it’s very much worth watching.
The plot begins with Lester Burnham, a middle-aged average American family man, announcing that he will be dead in a year. He begins his journey of vexation through passive aggression toward his wife and boss, neither of whom really respect him. His American dream dies completely, and he reverts back to a teenage mentality of chasing simple pleasures like getting the high school cheerleader, buying a cool car, and smoking pot. But as we see him openly deal with his unhappiness, we see just about everyone else quietly struggle with similar realizations that what they’ve idolized and chased after is not what will make them happy or give them purpose.
Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost sixty thousand dollars. Pass the asparagus.
The movie is brilliantly written, not necessarily in realistic situations and dialogue, but in its encapsulation of the angst that pervaded the 90s. The thoughts of Existential philosopher Camus are reflected in this movie: every conventional attempt at fulfillment and purpose is shown to be meaningless and absurd. Most characters realize this, but stew silently, refusing to give up their dreams. Lester becomes our Sisyphus, our absurd hero, in refusing to accept easy solutions and openly embracing the absurdity of life.
Watching the movie, there’s simultaneously a feeling of dread and a subtle feeling of relief—dread in the realization that chasing success and popularity will never truly make us happy, but relief in the realization that others see it too and we’re not alone in this thought. As the movie progresses, there’s an overwhelming feeling that this will not end well. The last 30 minutes or so are extremely suspenseful as everything unravels and some characters begin to accept that their dreams will never fulfill them.
The thoughts in American Beauty are deep and insightful—probably a bit more so in 1999, but still relevant today as well. It’s darkly funny, acerbic, and biting, but it’s a beautiful summation of the ennui and angst of the 90s. It will definitely fly over the heads of younger viewers; but anyone who is old enough to begin chasing success and achievement in a quest for meaning should view this as a cautionary tale.
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Director: Sam Mendes