I won’t sugarcoat my view of this movie: It’s really really gross.
But where Falling Down seems to enjoy it’s depravity and turn it into mean-spirited and often uncomfortable social commentaries that’s disconnected from reality, American Beauty seems to capture the spirit of dissatisfaction and complacency with their depravity all too well.
The story revolves around a father (played by Kevin Spacey) named Lester Burnham. Lester is a dissatisfied husband, a resented father and (most relevant to this site) a disgruntled employee. As an employee of a magazine company for 14 years he’s feeling a large wave of apathy towards his job come over him.
When confronted about the possibility of his job being phased out he’s rather explicit about their arbitrary usage of funds that are supposed to go towards employees. He highlights how him and his co-workers are seen as expendable and are being made expendable by people with a lot less experience than any of them.
He’s rather cutting and ruthless throughout the film about his job. Making comparisons between the corporation he works for and Satan himself. Lester also makes mention of the fact that while it’s more convenient to just shut up and go along with what the higher ups want, that doesn’t make it the right option or the one that will make him feel fulfilled.
On the other side of the coin, Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is an emotionally repressed woman whose drive for success has turned her into almost the polar opposite of Lester. Her ambitions for becoming the best house realtor shows us her sobbing, slapping herself for crying and showing emotions and not being “tough”.
This movie does a smart thing by showing us both sides of dealing with capitalism. Some of us try to make do under it by resisting as flagrantly as possible while others simply accept its terms. And for Carolyn accepting its terms means accepting it in the most emotionally damaging ways possible, so long as she can beat the competition.
At the start of the movie, Lester is seen (and shown as) a klutz and a loser. He’s resented by his only child, Jane and his wife pushes him around most of the time.
It’s only when Lester meets Jane’s friend Angela Hayes which causes him a personal revolution in how he sees the world. He becomes motivated to work out, quit his job (while blackmailing them for a yearly salary, smoke weed and go for runs alongside his neighbors.
The obvious problem here is that Lester is in his 40s and Angela is…in high school.
This is the main theme of the movie, Lester’s desire for Angela, which he has through numerous flashbacks which are as creepy and gross as you might expect.
On the other hand we actually understand and (dare I say) like Lester, despite this misguided interest in Angela. He’s mostly interested in her as a form of redemption, as a way to seek liberation from suburbia through depravity. Most of the cast does it in some form or another, it’s just that Lester’s is easily the most taboo and bordering on non-consensual given power disparities between him and Angela.
Still, the film plays it out in a pretty satisfying way in the end. Perhaps the only satisfying way that it could have gone in any case. I won’t ruin how the film decides to handle this “relationship” in case you haven’t seen it (this was my first time), but it’s worth paying attention to. Not the least of which because Angela seems to be into Lester at least some of the time. Though this “interest” is clouded by her emotions and her lack of understanding about what she’s getting herself into.
It’s difficult to say how much Angela is or isn’t genuinely into Lester throughout the film. She cycles back and forth between jokes about having sex with him but late in the film where she has a chance to make a move, she pulls back before things can get too hot and heavy. But regardless of her genuine interest or lack thereof we can see the power dynamics between Lester and Angela as making any potential relationship between them an inadvisable idea, to say the least.
With regards to anti-work themes, Lester uses Angela as a way to kickstart his life and stop feeling so “sedated”, as he describes himself at work. He goes to work for a fast food restaurant to take on “the least amount of responsibility possible”, buys himself a brand new car and generally says whatever he wants to anyone who talks to him.
Lester’s main charm in this movie is that he stops letting himself get pushed around by a nigh-abusive wife, a resentful daughter and a society that doesn’t seem to value any of his achievements or labor. Unfortunately this “assertion” becomes toxic and generally revolves around making big life decisions without consulting anyone around him or implicit threats of violence when he doesn’t feel respected.
And then he wonders why his wife doesn’t want his “help” to stop being so materialistic.
Though there is a great scene where Lester and Carolyn are arguing over the value of a $5000 couch with Lester yelling, “It’s just a couch! It’s just a couch! This isn’t life. It’s just stuff and it has become more important to you than living.” It’s a great line and speaks ton a lot of similar movies in the 90s (notably Fight Club) which revolve around rejecting the materialistic needs of society for…anything else.
Briefly, I want to mention that most of the adults in the movie rely on violence (implicit or explicit) to enforce their rules and preferred lifestyles on their children. Whether it’s Jane’s parents or her odd and voyeuristic neighbor Ricky and his deeply homophobic father. Adult supremacy in this movie is mostly dependent on threats of violence as it is in real life.
It’s an interesting question whether the titular American Beauty is really Angela or the ideals of the lifestyle that Ricky and Lester both seem to aim for: Living life on their own terms…as different as that might end up looking from everyone else’s expectations.
This movie also shows the importance of remembering that just because you’re a “non-conformist” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any better than the system itself.
Ricky consistently records people without their consent and Lester lusts after someone significantly younger than him. Neither of these things make these two characters irredeemable (at least not to me) but it shows that just because you’re rebelling against the way life is “supposed” to be, doesn’t mean you’re automatically right.
The film is a decent one at making you want to quit your job. If I had a job where I was devalued like Lester is, where people who had a lot less experience than me were making decisions and where the funds were being so frivolously wasted, I’d probably quit too.
That said, it’s not a perfect movie. While it satirizes some of the roles 90s suburbia and before that (and perhaps now) are entangled with, it also can’t help but also build caricatures of characters. The sexually repressed married couple, the sexually repressed military father, the popular girl, the overly-driven wife, etc.
And like I said, the movie is generally gross.
And what I mean by that is that it’s cringe-worthy, hard to watch and generally unpleasant in some of the things the characters do or desire. But that said, unlike Falling Down I actually wanted (and cared) about where it went because I felt invested in the characters.
I don’t understand all of what happened throughout the movie (two characters fall in love for reasons I found unclear, at best) but it’s overall solidly presented and the movie ends up being biting social commentary on our work-obsessed world.
Definitely worth a watch or even two.
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