Tuesday, 17 March 2015

American Beauty (1999) Suburban Nightmares

Directed by: Sam Mendes
119 Minutes 
Drama, Comedy
Everything is in crisis. Masculinity. The American Dream. The family. Sexuality. Individuality. Purpose. America. Beauty. This is American Beauty. 16 years on this film still feels fresh, relevant and highly entertaining. Having now seen it three times, I enjoyed soaking up the information on screen, and you get a real sense of what the film communicates and stands for. The writing from Alan Ball, direction from Sam Mendes and performance by Kevin Spacey are just a few things I love about this movie. This review has a good few spoilers so don’t read beyond the third paragraph!

The word 'American' in the title already makes sense, setting it next to the word 'beauty' almost mockingly. Many films have looked at suburbia, and the American ideal (including foreign cinema), but the way American Beauty does it is dramatic, hilarious and thought provoking. I am sure what I am saying has been said before, but I cannot understand some of the hate the film attracts. Perhaps the ending, and the famous plastic bag scene divides people on the film.

The cinematography and everything in frame are one of my favourite things in filmmaking, and here we really get a sense of the story and characters visually. The opening shot that moves in to Lester Burnam’s neighbourhood on a bright sunny day already paints a picture of suburbia. When Carolyn has her breakdown, the house is dark and empty. The colour palette of the film is mostly bright, and full of colour, but we also have darkly lit sets, as things grow darker in the story. One could talk for paragraphs about the mise-en-scene, but I will leave it there.

“This isn't life, it's just stuff. And it's become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that's just nuts”- Lester, American Beauty

“The things you own end up owning you”- Tyler Durden, Fight Club

So many interpretations have been brought to the table when looking at this film, and again is another thing I love about movies. This came out the same year as Fight Club, and coincidentally has similar themes of masculinity, materialism and also breaking free from ‘imprisonment’. The success of the film is likely because of watching Lester Burnham’s character development. He works in what we’d call a 9 to 5 job in an office where he is clearly not happy. He is inspired (through inappropriate ways) by something he experiences/sees, which could be seen as his mid-life crisis.

“There’s nothing worse than being ordinary”- Angela, American Beauty

Conformity and superficiality are also key elements of the film. The daughter of the family Jane from the beginning we learn has been saving up for breast implants. Her friend Angela boasts about her sexual experiences, saying she enjoyed being looked at by other men, which we soon learn has all been an act. Even Lester is trying to get in shape, which could be a blend of recapturing his younger self and/or to get the attention of Angela. Everyone is trying to be something: trying to be ‘ideal’ and something, they feel they have to be.

One of the most intriguing themes is the repressed homosexuality. Ricky’s father Colonel Fitts is a complex and layered character. He doesn’t have much screen time, which makes him an enigmatic character. We know he was in the marines, and eventually he is homophobic out of his own repressed homosexuality. Alan Ball, the writer behind Six Feet Under has tackled themes of sexuality brilliantly, capturing the dangers of repressed emotions and feelings can lead to. In the film’ case, Colonel Fitts is driven to murder by his own self-hate. This character could represent ‘old America’: a homophobic America. All you need to do is look at some of the anti-gay films, making homosexuals out to be paedophiles to understand that. With that aside, the film is full of sexual themes that you really begin to understand on repeat viewings.

I cannot leave out the performances of the cast in this film. Kevin Spacey is without a doubt a legend. His sardonic wit comes across in the film brilliantly as his character transforms, giving a middle finger to everyone. He is finally living the way he wants. Annette Bening plays Carolyn as a woman striving for career success, who’s emotions can sometimes shoot out in bursts, as we see when she is unsuccessful in selling a house. The young Thora Birch as Jane comes across as a complex character, and the emotion in her eyes really shows.

American Beauty is littered with themes, comedy and social commentary, which make it a layered viewing. Ultimately, it will remain one of my favourite films no matter what people say, because the writing is first class along with every other aspect of the film. Even the music has been a memorable piece to the film, putting it down as one of the greatest films of all time. American Beauty is a universal reminder not to feel constrained and to live how you want to live. It is for this lesson the film resonates with many people, and I am no exception.


Post a Comment

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Grants For Single Moms