American Beauty: A Contemporary Retrospective

Director: Sam Mendes | Runtime: 2h 2mins | Drama

American Beauty: A Contemporary Retrospective is written by Connor Cudmore.

Twenty-one years on, Sam Mendes’ tale of American tragedy is as poignant now as it was then… but not always for the right reasons.

The satisfaction of telling your boss where to stick their job is a luxury that’s afforded to… well, none of us. But God, wouldn’t it be great if it was. Sam Mendes’ directorial debut poses just that idea – what if, without care, we could relive the recklessness and disorder of our youth? What if we could do it without consequence? In Mendes’ bleak, but dream-like depiction of suburbia on the brink of the new millenium, we see an America desperately searching for a way out of its own nightmare. Lauded at its release in 1999, does its message and integrity hold up in the hellscape of 2020?

American Beauty is just one of many films that, at the end of the 20th century, pleaded with Americans to put down their staplers and shut off their fax machines, and for the love of God do something with their lives. David Fincher’s Fight Club was another. But unlike Fight Club, which has a tendency to fall into unrecognisable depravity, Sam Mendes’ classic tale of suburbanite, ticky-tacky existence is carved to a masterful and recognisable portrait of the American dogma. For the first quarter of American Beauty, it seems that everything is A-okay in the land of dreams and freedom – until you realise Mendes has dropped a righteous truth bomb right on top of it… 

The bomb lands directly on the home of Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, your everyman whose character holds a mirror up in the face of American middle-class existence – his house is large but devoid of personality, his teenage daughter has become unlikeable as she prepares for the uncertainty of the 2000s, and his marriage to the career-driven Carolyn is failing. When Lester is introduced to his daughter’s best friend, an obsession blossoms and kick-starts a mid-life crisis that sees him lay waste to the conventions he’s become enslaved to.

But watching Lester revel in self-gratification is as hilariously satisfying as it is petulant, like watching a child stomp their feet through a model village just because they can. It’s here that Mendes brilliantly straddles the line between satire and tragedy; Lester’s desperation to recover his youth by purchasing a pricey sports car and pumping iron only serves to dig Lester into a deeper hole than he just climbed out of. His wife isn’t much better – Annette Benning’s excellent portrayal of Carolyn, a despairing woman who’s frustration over her floundering career will be a sickly reminder to many. As they become increasingly antagonistic with each other, a venomous game of one-upmanship threatens the sanctity of the new-found freedom they both cherish. But it’s a freedom they can only brush with their fingertips before Mendes pulls the rug out from beneath it, and the director’s intention rears its ugly head.

The characters in American Beauty act more as representations of ideas – ideas of defiance and rejection of normality, but their success sometimes rests upon how realistic they are, and unfortunately for Mendes, many of them are not.

This intention, once with its chest puffed and ready to challenge the American intellect, sadly deflates in today’s film landscape. Lester’s daughter, Jane, who was likely already a contemptuous character in 1999, is supposed to find redemption in her relationship with Ricky, the figurative (and literal) boy-next-door. Together, the couple form an unlikeable duo who, for all their pseudo-intellectual rejection of normality, end up appearing completely clueless and boring – a title that Ricky ironically turns his nose up at. In the 2020 wasteland of creatives and overthinkers looking to make their mark, Jane and Ricky have aged to resemble a parody of today’s righteous youth rather than the bastion of integrity they’re intended to uphold. Lester’s story is more compelling, but his cynicism and self-gratification are irritating where once they were a breath of fresh air. Carolyn is the only character who’s arc holds up in today’s landscape, because her foray into mid-life excitement manifests itself in an affair that, in a welcome dose of realism, collapses around her. The characters in American Beauty act more as representations of ideas – ideas of defiance and rejection of normality, but their success sometimes rests upon how realistic they are, and unfortunately for Mendes, many of them are not.

The drama that the Burnhams and their neighbours once provided us with now comes across as whiny melodrama, and the clever satire interwoven throughout Lester’s person has given way to a parody of itself. But perhaps it’s biggest issue lies in the redemption of it’s characters – as film’s final act draws to a close, Lester rebuffs his daughter’s friend as if deciding not to sleep with high school girl is something we should congratulate him for (and of course, this snag so weirdly resembles Spacey’s own future). The commentary that Mendes presents us with, the fickle nature and meaninglessness of middle-to-upper class consumerism, are all well and good until the tools American Beauty uses to hammer that nail home confront the hard exterior of our modern landscape, where internal struggle with homophobia (alla Chris Cooper’s military man character, Frank Fitts) and Lester’s ‘man of the house’ disposition have no place in our psyche.

Where the film flourishes, however, is in Mendes’ artistic direction. As Lester drives a deeper hole into his hubris, the film borders on erotic. Lucid dream sequences that obscure Lester’s better judgement glide seamlessly across our screens, a serene peace that contrasts the subdued anarchy that unfolds in the plot. Mendes’ fantastic direction is where American Beauty really finds its footing – for every slow pan there is an explosive argument to be had between Lester and Carolyn that counteracts the entirely ordinary setting Mendes so patiently forces us to consider.

American Beauty is still, without a doubt, one of the most important films regarding Americanism and a crisis in identity. But Mendes’ directorial debut also feels like a period piece: a drama that harks back to the uncertainty of the new millenium, our children afforded better opportunities than us, and other ideas that were foreign then but are taken for granted – and laughed at – now. As Lester and Carolyn at once become slaves to their missed opportunities and squandered youth, American Beauty, twenty years on, has become an out-of-touch tale that will have audiences today questioning, “just what the hell was everyone moaning about?”

Author: Phil Wilson

I watch and make films.

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