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What to Watch: American Beauty

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You’re 40. You’re married and have kids who hate you. You’re about 20 pounds heavier than when you graduated from college. You’re balding and you haven’t seen your friends in 15 years.

Life just isn’t as fun as it was when you were 18. At that age, you had a lame but fun job, you had a lame but cool car and you had your entire life ahead of you. What happened?

In today’s world, suburbia is the end-all be-all of society. You either are a part of the crumbling society that is America or you are trying helplessly to avoid it, which, is entirely impossible.

For 43-year-old Lester Burnham, played perfectly by the amazing Kevin Spacey, the days he enjoyed are long gone.

Instead, Lester inhabits a life devoid of fun, relaxation, or anything even remotely enjoyable. His wife Carolyn, played by Annette Benning, hates him. The two have not felt any real emotion for each other in their marriage.

Jane, their daughter who is played by Thora Birch, was once close with Lester, but age and time tested their relationship. The two now are nothing more than strangers. Lester’s life is indeed drab and depressing, and Lester has every aspiration to change it.

“American Beauty”, directed by Sam Mendes, is a perfect picture of the crumbling lives of those trapped in suburbia. While exploring others themes such as sexuality, imprisonment, and redemption, the film goes the extra mile to delve into the long-lost idea of the American Dream.

While living in the land of suburbia, Lester strikes against many of the norms embraced by society. Holding a nine-to-five job, living in a big house and having a family are areas where the film seems to speak out against.

While changing his life, Lester strays himself from the norms and instead delves into what he enjoys. Amidst the other topics, the exploration of the American Dream stands out and truly displays the film’s significance in American culture.

The film opens with Lester summing up his life at the moment and explains how he will soon change it. The first half hour or so follows him in his average day, but the film finally takes a stride towards change when Lester meets Ricky Fitts, played by Wes Bentley.

Ricky is the son of Marine Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), a homophobic and abusive father. While attending a party for Carolyn’s real estate business, Ricky comes across Lester drowning his sorrows in Scotch.

Ricky asks if he “parties.” Lester is confused, and the two wind up smoking high-grade pot in the parking lot. It is clear Ricky “parties.”

Lester is immediately enthralled in Ricky. The two become close friends.

From here on out, Lester drastically changes his life; he quits his job after threatening to spill corporate secrets, he buys a 1970 Pontiac Firebird (because he “rules”), he gets a job at Smiley Burger, and he begins to work out whilst simultaneously smoking high-grade pot acquired from Ricky.

Things in Lester’s life are looking up, but as he gets happier, those around him get worse.

Angered, frustrated, and incredibly stressed, Carolyn begins an affair with real estate mogul Buddy “The King” Kane (Peter Gallagher).

In many ways, “American Beauty” is beautiful. The acting, the filming, the synopsis, and the messages. Director Sam Mendes is no stranger to hit films, having 2002’s “Road to Perdition” and the James Bond hits “Skyfall” and “Spectre” under his belt.

Next to Lester in the sense of, well, beauty, is Ricky Fitts. Strange and slightly socially inept, he supplies the film an extra layer of complexity. Ricky films anything and everything he considers to beautiful.

From Jane to a plastic bag flying in the wind (long before Katy Perry popularized the same sense of imagery) Ricky is a diverse and utterly unique character. Wes Bentley shines in his first major role.

His father, Colonel Frank Fitts, is an interesting character as well. Coming off as a homophobic jerk, for lack of a better word, Frank is more than what he seems.

Played by seasoned actor Chris Cooper, known for his roles in 1996’s “Lone Star’ and 1999’s “October Sky,” Cooper is no stranger to playing the vindictive bad guy. However, instead of his bad guy routine, he instead plays a rather introspective father. Quite the turn for aging actor.

By the end of the film, it is revealed that Colonel Fitts is actually a closeted homosexual. This is revealed when he passionately kisses Lester.

Despite this, Fitts does everything in his power to reinforce homophobia within his sheltered son. On the topic of interesting characters, Jane’s friend, Angela, stands out as yet another deeply complex character.

Played by the beautiful Mena Suvari of “American Pie” fame, Angela opts as sort of sexual deviant for Lester. Lester is enthralled in her beauty, and attempts to pursue her.

On an interesting note, there are two rather large contrasts in the film. Jane is seen as the goth, and Angela the popular girl.

As the film progresses, Jane wears less and less makeup and dresses more reserved. On the other hand, Angela wears more and more makeup and dresses more provocatively.

Mendes also adds flair to the film. In each and every scene of the film, roses are present. Be it a bathtub full of petals, a rose garden or the fictional “Rose State” license plate, roses remain a constant.

The roses are meant to represent redemption and sexual desire, two major themes present in the film.

“American Beauty” trumps along and leaves a mark on the viewer. The dull-to-amazing life of Lester, the downward spirals of Carolyn and Angela, the relationship between Jane and Ricky, and the redemption, turmoil, and sexual desire of Lester’s life all mix together to form a perfect storm for film-goers.

In the end, we must all live our lives to the fullest. Get out of the doldrums, live a little and do something. If you do not like something, go out and change it.

If you are looking for a fresh and unique take on life, do yourself and your life a favor by watching “American Beauty.” Who knows, you could find something beautiful in life you never thought could be beautiful before.

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Tyler Lopez, Author

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