Just recently my husband and I have made a major move over five hundred miles, into a cute little suburban neighborhood. All the houses are made of brick, with matching brick mailboxes. We now have trees, a gas fireplace, and a dining room with a big window that begs to be slightly formal. But where that room would like a polished new table with matching chairs, we have a pile of junk awaiting the attic. Looking at it now, the hodgepodge of holiday decorations, plastic storage bins and old Lego buckets covered in stickers are a better example of our real personalities than any dressed up slab of wood could ever be.
I wonder how long any of our new neighbors kept unsightly things in plain view before replacing it with what is expected to be there. I do believe that we hide what is truly distinct about ourselves too often in parts of suburbia. Neighbors can find community in the matching brick and then comfort in pleasing furniture, set in the appropriate places. But too much of that can feel like a cage, and when these masks are discarded, what real personalities will we wish could go back to bland?
In American Beauty, middle-aged Lester (Kevin Spacey) has a beautiful house, a bullshit job, a wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) who desperately appears to be perfect, a distant teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) and less than a year to live. Of course he doesn’t know that last part yet, but Lester already feels dead inside.
What awakens Lester from what he describes as a twenty year coma, is a sudden infatuation with his daughter’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). She’s a blond beauty and knows it, always talking about the latest guy who has made her his sexual conquest. Oh teenage girls and their need for male approval. When she picks up on Lester’s attraction to her, she can’t help rub it into Jane’s face and act slightly flirtatious around her father. And Lester can’t help but overhear how she thinks he would be more attractive if he worked out more.
Fueled by this rush of happiness and a goal to “look good naked,” Lester reinvents himself. He starts working out and quits his office job to work at a burger joint, committing ballsy blackmail to keep supporting his family. He starts smoking pot, bought from the kid next door, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who has a fascination with filming and starts dating his daughter. Best of all, Lester no longer silently bows to to the conventional whims of his wife. I found myself cheering Lester on from my couch the first time he tells Carolyn off.
Somehow, I had only liked Spacey in most of his other films, American Beauty is the first time I absolutely loved him. He could have won that Oscar just for he way he runs down the hall after eavesdropping on Jane and Angela. Spacey gracefully transforms Lester from a pathetic loser to a confidently happy person. We don’t look down on him for smoking pot or lusting after a teenager, we envy how alive he feels.
While Lester blossoms after his perfectly boring suburbanite layers have been stripped away, we discover that others are rotten and ugly when revealed. Along the way, we get small glimpses at how messed up Carolyn really is underneath her perfect shell. She works as a realtor, desperately trying to make a ho-hum house appealing to buyers, who simply aren’t impressed. At the end of the unsuccessful open house, she finds herself slipping into a weak moment and slaps herself, rather violently, saying, “Shut up, you’re weak, shut up!” This is only the tip of Carolyn’s iceberg she represses from the world through perfectly manicured roses.
Throughout American Beauty, director Sam Mendes uses three distinct styles of filming at various times. The first is very formal and sterile, reflecting the suburban lifestyle Carolyn is striving for. Here, scenes are usually very centered, clean and uncluttered, but colors are a bit flat. The second style is used primarily in Lester’s fantasies. Here, there’s great contrast between lights and colors, especially the deep red rose pedals always present. Many times there’s also a repetitive action, a moment that Lester focuses on, that seems to slow time down just before some climactic moment. It helps us understand how Lester’s head is swimming whenever Angela is around. The third style is the use of a simple handheld camera, usually in Ricky’s hand. This serves as an unpolished, prying eye that sees things at face value. While this lens shows the world without makeup or aid of fantasy, we are still able to see true beauty if you look close enough.
My pile-of-junk dining room would look marvelous on Ricky’s grainy camera. It’s stayed this way for the past week simply because other things are more important, like writing this blog, packing for a trip and taking an evening walk. Also, some of it I can’t lift by myself, but that’s not the point. I’m sure one day the clutter will be gone, maybe even a little missed, and replaced with a table with matching chairs. I just hope that we keep a good amount of color and brightness to the new place, and no reasons for a plate of asparagus to be thrown against the walls.
“This isn’t life! This is just stuff! And it’s become more important to you than living!”