A few nights ago my friends and housemates and I started watching the Kevin Spacey classic American Beauty. I don’t know why it’s a classic, other than that it’s never been paralleled on many levels. It combines all the great genres in one cacophonous roar: horror, suspense, romance, black comedy, family drama, dadadada…and after all that, we still had to shut it off after less than half an hour. I won’t deny that it’s a pioneering effort, but it’s so graphically represented on some levels that it’s difficult to take in all at once. Take Spacey’s character Lester, for example. He’s the classic American dad, stereotypically out of touch with his wife and daughter, and sexually unfulfilled because of his lack of self-confidence and his general apathy. His job, though? He writes for (what I believe to be) a lifestyle and fashion magazine. Aside from being something that no other dads do, that’s pretty cool on it’s own. Even that doesn’t hold his interest though: the only thing that he can seem to stay interested in is the “girl next door”, his daughter’s best friend.
Think The Graduate meets Cruel Intentions. The friend doesn’t quite pull off the Reese Witherspoon temptress act, but she gives it her own spin and ends up coming out of it with a truly alarming and memorable role. The addition of the rose petals to every scene of fantasy between her and Lester is the only way you can tell for sure that this isn’t actually happening, and the director deserves some kudos for adding a truly disturbing and thought-provoking question here. What is REALLY going on here? Whose fault is it? Why is Lester so self-degraded that he’s stooped to preying on his daughter’s friends? How can he (SPOILER ALERT) even deign to be offended when his wife goes out looking to find her satisfaction elsewhere? It was absolutely inexcusable on her part to cheat on him, but I won’t say that he didn’t encourage it by simply checking out and forgetting to be a part of his family’s life for the time being. The thing that saddened me most though was that he didn’t try to change anything. He didn’t have an affair with Mena Suvari (the friend), but that one small act of regression wasn’t enough to undo years of habits and built-up hostilities. It cost him his life in the end, and he had no one but himself to blame for it.
Mena Suvari’s Angela Hayes is one of the more troubling characters in this line-up of hard faces and dirty secrets. She’s a spoiled high school girl, the type-cast cheerleader, but she has a bit of venom to her that just doesn’t seem to slip away. She’s more than a bit slinky, and while she’s not evil per se, her intentions are…well, cruel. She openly brags to Jane that she ‘d get it on with Lester if she got the chance. HowEVER, she doesn’t actually make that mistake when she gets the chance. Among the many shadows and dark places in this film, her and Lester’s decision to not broach an affair is a ray of hope. It’s one of the few we have the chance to see, so hold on to it while you have the chance.
Wes Bentley’s young voyeur Ricky Fitts is another unsettling character to read much into. To hear him say anything about it, his “Real World”-style docufilms are just his way of seeing and recording what actually goes on in the world. Maybe I’m reading too much into it and he is just another creepy peeper, but I think there’s a little more to him than that. I think that he feels more than a little bit trapped by the oppressive atmosphere his father enforces in the house, and he wants to believe that there’s more to family life than just the militant routine he lives by.
I didn’t feel any less bothered by his night-time activities once I’d decided to think about them that way, but it helped me figure out why he would go to the trouble if he were never going to show anyone else his work. I might have figured this out if I’d stayed for the rest of the movie, but perhaps part of the reason he took such an interest in Jane was that he had finally found someone he wanted to share his secrets with? She agreed to leave her life to be with him, even though they were never able to follow through on their plan during our time in the story. Even as troubled as she was, Jane thought she could see some good in him. If she thought so, I’ll give him the benefit of doubt. I don’t think that he ever meant to hurt anyone; he just wanted to be left alone. Would he have changed at all if he hadn’t met Jane? We might not ever know for sure.
One more snapshot, and I’ll shut up. This is Jane, Lester’s daughter. At first blush, she looks more than a bit like a stereotypical Goth high school girl. That was what interested me at first, actually. She seemed a little too molded into that type, and I wanted to know if there was more to her story. I got what I was looking for, but certainly not the way I expected it. Jane seems content, for a while, to live in her friend Angela’s shadow. She quietly waits out Angela’s monologues about all the terror they’re going to cause to everyone they know, and talks her back down as close to the ground as she can get.
Truth be told, I really liked Jane. She made a lot of awful decisions, but she was one of the most honest characters in the story. She wanted to be with Ricky because he was looking for the truth. She was tired of living with lies, and she took the escape she could see. I don’t think that Jane was as dark as she tried to be. She was just looking for someone as ready to see the real world as she was.
I’ll be brief in my summary: everyone in this story had the chance to change for good, and some of them changed for the better. Lester just didn’t see the light in time to save his own life. Maybe your life can change right at the end, but will that ever undo all the bad things you’ve already done? I don’t think so. I mean, what do you have to look back on? Your life is ending just as it’s begun. Maybe the light there is that you leave with a clean slate. I hope so, for his sake. It makes me more than a little sad to think that anyone would have to die that way. And, even though I would never want to live or die the way he did, I still believe his last words were true: there is SO much beauty in the world. Let’s take the chance we have to take it all in.
My rating: B
Give it a shot, and let me know what you think. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.