The American Beauty, the Oscar-winning movie featuring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, is a passionate tale of a mid-life crisis in the life of a wealthy suburban family. The characters existing all in their separate, isolated worlds remind the viewer of broader social context against which the action revolves.
The Burnham family consists of three individuals living lives totally independent of the rest of the family. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) works for a magazine, finding himself in a career that is really going to bring him nowhere. His wife, Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) is on the surface a prospering realtor who finds herself obsessed with career success. She sleeps with ‘Real Estate King’ Buddy Kane in order to win credits at work. Their daughter, Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) is going through a full-blown adolescent crisis, striving for beauty she expects to achieve through breast surgery.
Lester moves out of his state of quiet desperation when he falls in love with Angela, the school friend of his daughter. The pretty and cheeky girl inspires him to take to muscle training in an effort to regain his sexy and youthful look, and he keeps dreaming about her in sexual terms. At the end of the movie, however, Lester stops short of making love to Angela when he learns that she is a virgin.
In the meantime, Jane starts an affair with Ricky Fitts, a guy from a neighboring family, viewed by the school society as a freak like herself. His obsession with beauty for small things accounts for his passion at constant videotaping, and his lucrative drug-dealing business can be a form of protest against the strict rules of his father, Colonel Frank Fitts who had already intimidated his mother into a state of permanent shock.
The main focus of the movie is how suburban life makes people isolated. Suburban alienation is a well-known phenomenon pervasive in communities where people live in their separate houses, enclosing themselves in their separate worlds that can be just a few feet away from the neighbour, but totally strange in terms of spiritual and friendly ties. Another reason for suburban alienation is the distance between these communities and downtowns that imposes certain constraints on travel. The Burnham family does not seem to have difficulties in getting to work and school, but its members are really enshrined in their separate lives, sharing only physical space. Lester, Carolyn and Jane all go their separate ways, masking under pretence of a ‘normal’ family hatred, suspicion and contempt for each other. There is even less connection between the members of the Fitts family where father and son both have distorted views of each other and have little sympathy for each other’s ideals and desires.
Another feature of suburban lifestyle is the need conform to certain ideals, including of a successful career path, certain level of material wealth and ‘normal’ personal qualities. Suburbanites are constantly balancing between the willingness to get accepted in their prestigious set and desire to break from the demands of this society that is plaguing many. In this society it does not really matter if people have a successful personal relationship or not: what matters is their material wealth and social position that are both earned through professional success. A vivid example is success-minded Carolyn who does not hesitate to sleep with a man she is not really attracted to for career reasons, betraying a husband she sees as a failure anyway. The most success-driven character in the movie, she at the end finds herself with life totally empty, when nothing is left to cover the enormous gap in her emotional life.
Adherence to social certain social norms versus liberation from set rules is another topic that surfaces American Beauty. Liberation is exemplified in Lester who leaves his monotonous job in the form of protest, not forgetting to blackmail his boss into a huge sum. He finds that his life become much more fulfilling when he discards his previous views and aspirations that were the standard in his society and did not blend in at all with his personality or innermost desires. Deciding to listen to his kind of music, spending time in his own way, training muscles to revive his body, Lester discovers that even such mild form of protest does not resonate with the suburban life pattern and evokes ridicule in his family members.
The culture of the suburbs embraces consumerism, but it does not surface in American Beauty as the root of all evil. The characters all have some degree of material wealth, but it does not make them happy in any way since wealth is something that goes without saying in this comfortably well-off world. Suburban life is really about outward appearances, which is exactly what drives people crazy. The Burnhams are an excellent prosperous family on the surface, however, deep in their souls trouble is brewing. The conflict between what is on the surface and what a person feels within lies at the heart of most unhappiness found in characters. Yet they cannot very easily overcome the need to keep up appearances since everyone who fails to live up to society’s expectations is labelled as a ‘freak’. This is the category in which Jane Burnham and Ricky Fitts finally land – after they find the courage to look life in the face and recognise that they do not need to blend in with society if it contradicts their inner selves.
The need to live up to outward ideals also shapes the relationships between parents and children. Thus, Jane states that she needs a father who is a ‘role model’ and does not ‘spray his pants’ when she brings a friend home from school, referring to his fascination with Angela. Youngsters in American Beauty are insecure like most teenagers, in particular Angela and Jane, concerned with their attraction and emerging womanhood. The problem with the suburban world is that this feeling of anger and insecurity will not go away. This is what Lester believes when he states that he would love to tell his daughter that her problems will soon fade, but does not want to lie to her. Indeed, in the community when people feel stranded on deserted islands with their load of problems, finding security and support become a challenge that each confronts individually, and the chance of failure is very high.
American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. 1999.