Movie Review: American Beauty (1999)

On reflection, testifying to the inner reality

American_Beauty“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and… this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… and I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” — Ricky Fitts

This year’s (2008’s) crop of Oscar nominated movies seemed to lack in the way of uplift: the Academy deemed the best movies for 2007 to be 1) No Country for Old Men (winner… but a complete downer, violent, too), 2) There Will Be Blood (Daniel Day Lewis plays a psycho oil baron with a father disorder), 3) Atonement (a love story, but with false accusations of rape), 4) Michael Clayton (depressing indictment of corporate man… and woman), 5) Juno (this is the cheerful one, and it’s about teenage pregnancy!).

Written by Alan Ball
Directed by Sam Mendes

Kevin Spacey … Lester Burnham
Annette Bening … Carolyn Burnham
Thora Birch … Jane Burnham
Wes Bentley … Ricky Fitts
Mena Suvari … Angela Hayes
Chris Cooper … Col. Frank Fitts, USMC
Peter Gallagher … Buddy Kane
Allison Janney … Barbara Fitts

And none of them was a BIG movie either, like Gladiator or Chicago or Lord of the Rings. But they’ve been showing some other recent Academy award winners and this one came in; American Beauty was neither BIG nor (really) a downer… instead it was just wildly different. American Beauty won the Oscar for best picture in 1999, and I’m sure it caught a lot of people by surprise.  What were they to make of a middle-aged-crazy Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) addicted to a sexual fantasy of his daughter’s cheerleader girlfriend Angela (Mena Suvari) letting go of the pretensions of his life, while his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) pursues these pretensions in equal proportion.

Then in the upscale neighborhood their new neighbors arrive, consisting of a repressed ex-Marine Frank Pitts (Chris Cooper), his hopelessly beaten-down wife Barbara (Allison Janney), and their Zen Buddhist marijuana-dealer-king son Ricky (Wes Bentley).  Ricky goes to the same high school as the Burnhams’ daughter, plain Jane (Thora Birch), whom he finds deeply beautiful—as, truth be told, he finds just about everything… from dead birds to plastic bags flying in the wind.

Jane’s girlfriend, Angela, the object of Lester’s fixation, we discover to be, well, shallow and superficial—at least by all appearances. 🙂 She’s always talking to Jane about the sex acts she wants to perform, and allegedly has performed, with boys and men… including making suggestive comments about Jane’s father.  Angela even comes on to Lester on a couple of occasions when she’s sleeping over with Jane.  In the value system of the school, Angela is considered the “beautiful cheerleader” who has it all together, while Jane is thought of as a shy wallflower.

From my seat, there are four main themes: a) Lester’s attempted liberation from pointless materialism, b) Carolyn’s desperate clinging to that materialism, c) the blossoming love between Ricky and Jane (and the related development of each of them), and d) the buildup of hatred and fear in Colonel Fitts.  Each of these character’s stories plays out with the others, weaving in and out.  And the audience is challenged to see virtue or vice in these folks, depending on audience members’ own premises.  [Even the ones we see as negatively oriented we find sympathy for.]

What was interesting to me is how many of my family and some friends found the characters I especially liked—Lester, Ricky, and Jane—to be degenerate or at least lacking in social graces. The most common objection was to the older man Lester Burnham lusting after the teenage girl, as if that kind of sexual desire, urge, or longing is by itself proof of depravity of this man and, maybe, all men: “No way is Lester Burnham anything but a child molester. No sympathy. Case closed, and how could anyone possibly like the movie?! (You sicko!)”

Or if your critic is a fan of drug prohibition, then he or she is going to see Ricky Fitts’ unapologetic use and sale of the demon weed (he only uses G-13, the federal government-developed strain, going for “$2000 an ounce”).  In fact, Ricky’s maturing and Lester’s liberation are facilitated by the marijuana Ricky supplies to his neighbor—this girlfriend’s father, who’s on a mission of latent self-discovery reclaiming his manhood from a sterile cage of belittlement that grew up around him willy nilly.  This is definitely a good movie to dispel the myths of the drug haters: here’s a young man, Ricky, who not only has grasped some deep truths of spiritual existence, he finds marijuana to be the frosting on the cake of these apprehensions.

Weed can be good for you on a very fundamental level!  Wow, that’s surely not PC, is it? So there you have another defiant departure from the standard propaganda the Cartel has foisted upon us.  To me this is more refreshing than acknowledging older men have sexual thoughts about young women with hot bods.  So with Beauty we’re getting a positively revolutionary assault on conventional religion-dominated morality on two fronts… in favor of, what, the notion of pleasure being okay.

But there’s more to it when one starts thinking about the perceptions of the kid, of Ricky Fitts, of his whole Buddhist sensibilities.  Lately, I’ve been into the ideas of The Power of Now, per Eckhart Tolle.  And I’ve really become attuned to seeing under the surface, picking up on the reality of what goes on right in front our faces, but we too rarely appreciate.  There’s a classic scene where Ricky is watching the two girls, Angela and Jane, from across the way. We see Angela, knowing she’s being watched, prancing about and trying to be sexy—it’s strangely unattractive—then we see Jane, in the background, reading or just gazing at a simple object. And her countenance comes across as the Mona Lisa or a Botticelli angel. It’s truly a special moment in film—there is a remarkable beauty captured in her—and you don’t have to be high to appreciate it.

Hence the title of the movie: American Beauty.

To me, in matters of the soul is where the movie comes out and makes its mark.  It offers us a spiritual vision of what Ayn Rand says “we might and ought to be,” or what William Blake suggests is seeing “the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, holding infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

I don’t know, these spiritual qualities are what I pick up on now every time I see the movie. Not that the humor isn’t great, or that I don’t want to stand up and cheer for Lester Burnham for quitting his pressure job, flipping burgers instead, hitting the weights, buying a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, and smoking dope.  Having the time of his life… then figuring out the difference between reality and fantasy when it comes to Angela.  In turn helping her to grow.  My hero!

If you love liberty, reason, and spiritual living, there’s nothing not to love about this movie. Four stars, with an A+ for simple honesty.  A liberating treat.

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