Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues
American beauty is one of those films you cannot help but take an instant liking to. It is a realistic story that plays out many of the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
Lester Burnham played by Kevin Spacey is at the centre of the film who becomes sexually frustrated with his wife Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) who in turn is being increasingly dissatisfied with her status as an average estate agent. The plot thickens when Lester starts fantasying over his daughters friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Lester’s wife in turn becomes interested in the very successful fellow estate agent Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Lester’s daughter thus becomes interested in the strange and mysterious boy next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who has just moved in. Ricky lives with his mother who is suffering from mental problems and his very militaristic minded father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) who towards the end of the film becomes convinced that his son’s time spent talking to Lester has lead to the two entering a gay relationship. Having had the Right-wing militarism installed in to him, Colonel Fitts does not take very kindly to the idea of gay relationships.
Lester has worked for fourteen years at an advertising company that is now having cutbacks in staffing levels. At first Lester seems concerned about losing his job but over time begins to realize that it is simply not worth sticking around for a job that has devalued him in such a way that he no longer matters. In this important scene Lester quits his job in the style that most of would want do to if we were in the same position.
There is no immaturity on his part. He knows the chances are that he probably will not be able to save his job in the long run and quite ruthlessly manages to get a years salary with benefits. In the increasingly backstabbing world of major corporations one can certainly understand that he is ‘just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.’ The loyalty he showed the company after fourteen years was not offered to him when he needed it and for that reason one can certainly emphasize with lackluster engagement in trying to both save his job and care about what he writes in a letter to the manger, which is also an excellent demonstration in people power.
The main point in this film I would like to point out was the way in which status and material interest were seen as the most important things in life. And they were ironically the downfall of Lester’s wife – Carolyn. Lester of course was guilty of fantasizing about the young Angela. This was brought out by the sexual dissatisfaction within his own life, though it is worth mentioning that Lester made no attempt at Angela until he became aware of his wife’s extramarital activities. Two wrongs certainly don’t make a right but it is Lester who truly finds himself and shuns the materialistic and status obsessed world he lives in. Realistically his attraction to the young Angela was not in the context of a man wanting to potentially show off an attractive girlfriend, rather to ‘let off some sexual desire’. The way status no longer plays a part in Lester’s life is evidenced in his willingness to take up the job working for a fast food outlet in the lowest position in the company.
The scene where Lester is speaking to his estranged wife romantically whilst lying on a couch with a bottle of beer and then all of a sudden despite being initially taken in by Lester’s seduction his wife visualizes the beer spilling on the couch and yells ‘Lester your gonna spill beer on the couch’. Lester is furious at this point pointing out that ‘it is just a couch’. The fact his wife is more concerned with the couch than being seduced with Lester is perhaps the source of his greatest frustration. One can understand his frustration if one is to make the mistake that material goods are more important than experiences.
The film essentially strikes accord that the accumulation of possession and status do begin to show their ugly ‘true colors’ in times of need. This was particular evidenced with the way Carolyn was dumped so easily by Buddy when there were to be any signs of problems for himself such as the effect her likely break up with Lester will have. There was the way in which Lester was so easily threatened with redundancy from a firm he had been loyal to for fourteen years. Or the way in which Angela had constantly bragged about her numerous sexual exploits to her friend, Lester’s daughter and it subsequently turned out that she was actually a virgin when the time came to doing the ‘deed’ with Lester.
Unfortunately for Lester there is no happy ending. As mentioned Colonel Fitts becomes convinced that his son is having a gay affair with Lester and decides to shoot Lester at his house. Lester’s life flashes before his eyes in this important scene. His wife returns home having discovered Lester’s body collapsing in to Lester’s wardrobe holding his clothes.
The reality and maintenance of high status in society was shown in the way people are constantly trying to make their image look ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ than what they actually are. While there are many films that bare no resemblance to the reality of real life, American Beauty is simply not in that category. It is an idealistic film that helps people with an open mind explore themselves and realize the true identity of high status in times of need. The battle of ideas will continually be fought between those who in society believe in the accumulation of high status and those who are speaking of greater richness in their souls that is simply not found in material possessions and high status. Living a life where there is no conditional love is important and for that reason I know whose side I’m on.
(Oliver Wilson, 2015)