Movies That Settle: American Beauty

Posted: May 5, 2016 in Movies That Settle, Uncategorized
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Sam Mendes’ American Beauty was considered one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies of All-Time” by Premiere magazine. Which is out of business. Maybe if they were still around, they could take the advice of the film’s tagline and “look closer.”

I’ve seen other instances of people saying that this film is overrated, or undeserving of the Best Picture trophy it received. And that may be true. I mean, I think a lot of movies don’t deserve their Best Pic wins. Since those awards are largely political and are rarely based on the actual quality of the movie itself, let’s just throw all that out the window right now and look a little closer.

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We need to look no further than the logline give on IMDB: “A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.”

That is absolutely, 100% not what this movie is about. Sure, that is what happens, but whoever wrote that line for IMDB must not have actually watched the movie. To say that Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham has a simple “mid-life crisis” is not doing the character justice at all. Sure, he buys an expensive car and lusts after a high school hottie, but the character is so much more formed than that. It can almost be described as spiritual awakening, rather than a mid-life crisis. (I don’t really like the idea of a mid-life crisis at 55, anyway. As Michael Caine once said, “Who lives to 110?”)

Lester is a regular, suburban guy with a teenage daughter, Jane, who hates him and a battle-ax wife, Carolyn (played by Annette Bening) who also kind of hates him because he doesn’t help her portray the typical American family unit. He is crapped on at his advertising job by younger execs, and his life is basically defined by a scene where he is dragged by his wife to see their cheerleader daughter perform at her high school basketball team’s half-time show. Lester’s reaction? “I’m missing the James Bond Marathon on TNT.”

However, during the performance, Lester sees Angela (Mena Suvari) for the first time. In a beautifully-shot sequence, Lester fantasizes that she is performing just for him in what basically amount amounts to a striptease, except when she opens her sweater, rose petals float out:

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It’s pretty awesome.

Anywho, this sets Lester off quite a bit, as after over-hearing Angela tell Jane that she likes dudes who are fit, he begins working out. Lester is further awakened when he is re-introduced to pot by the neighbor’s son, Ricky, and then he really starts to turn it around. Hey, it is a gateway drug!

Ricky and his family are an interesting lot. His father is a retired army Colonel, who seems to hate everything other than his son, especially gay people. After a gay couple that lives in the neighborhood welcome him with a gift basket, the Colonel wonders out loud to his son why “them faggots always gotta throw it in your face?” He also keeps close tabs on Ricky, who has been busted for selling and using drugs in the past. As I said, he clearly does love Ricky, but you can tell that he is more than a little disappointed that his son isn’t anything like him. Incidentally, Ricky’s mother, played amazingly understated by Alison Janney, is just weird.

Lester asks Ricky if he can buy some more weed from him, and Lester sees Ricky’s room for the first time, and he sees all the high-end technology that selling drugs can buy. Lester tells Ricky that when he was his age, he flipped burgers all summer to afford a stereo. When Ricky replies that that sucks, Lester responds with one of the great lines of the movie: “Actually it was great. All I did was party and get laid.”

This inspires Lester to quit his job, as he saw Ricky do the night before. Lester also screws his company out of three month’s salary by threatening a sexual harassment suit, and applies for a job at the local fast food joint. When he is told that they aren’t hiring managers only counter workers, he rattles off another one of my all-time favorite lines: “Good. I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility.” And let me say here that I don’t know if anyone other than Kevin Spacey could have delivered that line with such aplomb.

Lester’s marriage is also falling apart, if it was ever together to begin with. But it isn’t just him who is unsatisfied, as his wife begins sleeping with a fellow real estate tycoon, who also encourages her to go to a shooting range to pop off a few rounds when she gets stressed out. This brilliantly shows that there are two sides to an unhappy marriage, and they don’t just make Annette Bening’s character out to be some horrible shrew. She actually has feelings, too. Lesser screenwriters take note: All your characters matter.

However, it is still mainly Lester’s story, so when he catches his wife and her lover canoodling at his drive-thru, it leads to another moment of realization for him when he tells her, slowly and with conviction: “You don’t get to tell me what to do… ever again.” I think it’s something a lot of people wish for, and Lester has discovered it: control. This is another huge step towards his spiritual awakening. He’s not even really mad at her for cheating. In fact, he seems pretty pleased with himself over it.

Just as Lester’s total transformation is about to net him the object of his desire, Angela, he learns another truth: all her talk throughout the movie about the myriad sex she’s had is just bluster. She actually is a virgin. Even though she says she still wants to, this gives him pause. As crazy as he seemingly has gotten, he still does not want to be That Guy. There seems to be some discrepancy over this fact on the movie’s IMDB page. I’m not sure why, but one poster said something about Angela saying that she was a virgin so that Lester would enjoy it more because guys like having sex with virgins. It’s pretty obvious to me, due to her crying after he decides to not have sex with her, that she was making it all up just to feel superior to Jane, and probably everyone else. I am not sure why someone would jump to the whole Guys Like Virgins thing rather than just assume that a teenager was lying about their sex life, but hey, you go with whatever.

Instead of nookie, the two share a moment when he asks her if she thinks that his daughter is happy. When she tells him, “Yes,” he realizes what is really important in life. It’s not the shiny, red car he bought, or the muscles he put on (or the weed, presumably). He looks at a family vacation picture from long ago and realizes just how lucky he really is.

And then he is shot in the head! See, not too long before his big moment, his crazy Colonel neighbor came on to him, thinking that Lester was actually a homosexual (Lester had told him that his marriage was just a facade, and Colonel Fitts got a little confused.) After Lester politely rejected him, the Colonel felt humiliated and decided to go home and get his gun. He then blew Lester’s head off to prevent his secret from getting out. Or for revenge. or because he was just crazy. It’s really another interesting layer to a character who was seemingly just a giant bigot, but in actuality an anguished closet homosexual.

The best part, though? Lester died smiling.

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I could write all day about the themes of this movie, about the red-on-white color scheme, the Lolita references, the meaning of the blowing plastic bag, etc. But what I really wanted to focus on was what was really going on with this guy. To me, Lester isn’t experiencing a mid-life crisis, and he isn’t lusting after Angela in some sort of Lolita-like way, and he wasn’t just some pothead. He’s simply feeling the Weight of Responsibility that a lot of people feel at some point in their lives. This was how he decided to deal with it.  Peter Gibbons from Office Space chose to deal with it a different way, but we all kind of have to deal with it somehow. There are different responsibilities, of course; financial, family, just generally fitting in to society. But we all have them, and if, like Lester, your job and your marriage suck, well then you quit them and move on. If you want to call that a mid-life crisis, then that’s your call. I prefer to agree with Lester himself. After his soon-to-be ex-boss calls him sick, he replies, “Nope. I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.”

In the end, he realized that he did have his family to lose, but at the time he said, it was total truth, and not the words of someone going through a mid-life crisis. this guy knew what he wanted, and got it.

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