Monday, May 14, 2012

#637. American Beauty (1999)

Directed By: Sam Mendes

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch

Tag line: "... look closer"

Trivia:  Terry Gilliam turned down the chance to direct the film

Of all the dramatic, life-affirming scenes in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, which did I find the most moving? 

Believe it or not, it’s a short video of a plastic bag fluttering in the wind. 

Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who shot this particular video, caught the moment quite unexpectedly, as if the bag had all of a sudden started dancing just for him. In fact, Ricky finds it so exquisite that it moves him to tears. “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world”, he says, “that I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in”. 

This is the premise of American Beauty in a nutshell; spending a lifetime searching for a little magic, only to realize it’s been right in front of you all along.

Middle-aged office worker Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has given up on happiness. Existing in a typical American nightmare, he spends his days working a nowhere job, and his nights wondering how his life got so far off-track. Lester's wife, Caroline (Annette Bening), is an ambitious real-estate agent who’s completely caught up in her material world, and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is so disgusted with her dad’s mawkishness that she can’t stand the sight of him. 

But Lester is about to experience a change. First, he meets his daughter’s incredibly attractive teenage friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), who invades his fantasies morning, noon and night. Then, he has a chance encounter with drug-dealing next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts, whose approach to everything can best be described as “hostile, yet observant”. 

Inspired by the feelings these two young people stir within him, Lester starts taking life by the horns.

American Beauty is a thought-provoking account of one man's reawakening to the potential that life holds. When Lester first spots Angela in her cheerleader's uniform, something stirs inside of him. “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for 20 years”, he says, “and I’m just now waking up”. He fantasizes about her constantly, seeing her in his minds eye surrounded by rose petals. 

But there's more to Lester's resurgence than mere infatuation, as we witness in his initial meeting with Ricky Fitts. Working as a waiter at a local Real Estate Agents' function, Ricky introduces himself to Lester by asking if he'd like to get high with him in the parking lot. So, the two retreat to the back and light up. 

At one point, Ricky’s boss (Joel McCrary) interrupts them and orders Ricky back to work. Instead of complying, Ricky quits on the spot, leaving Lester, who’s having troubles of his own at the office, completely stunned. He admires the young man's spirit, and is more than a little impressed with the freedom Ricky displays. The next day, Lester not only sabotages his own dead-end job, but also blackmails the company hatchet man, Brad (Barry Del Sherman) into giving him a year’s severance with full benefits. 

Lester walks out of that office a new man, rejuvenated, and back among the living. “It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself”, Lester says. “It makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about”. Before the film is over, Lester will have uncovered a great many surprises.

The theme of American Beauty is that life is meant to be experienced, not merely lived. This concept is marvelously conveyed by the actions of it’s characters, many of whom are inspired by the realization that, sometimes, the most powerful muse the world has to offer is lurking just outside their front door.

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