So when I saw American Beauty, I was quite upset because it didn’t have one single Grateful Dead song.
Deadheads get that joke; the Grateful Dead recorded an album with that same title. But the movie is a classic (and Best Picture winner). I remember seeing that at a movie theater in Plattsburgh, NY, at the behest of my Creative Writing professor; she had us watch it so we could analyze the characters.
I picked up this DVD for $5 at a Friends of Library sale on Connecticut Avenue, and as I watched it, I realized it falls under the Pro-Single category.
Critics have described American Beauty as a portrait of the dark side of the American dream: job, house in suburbs, marriage, children. I’m going to take that stance in this review. At the beginning of the film, Lester Burnham’s life is in a rut. He’s an advertising executive at a company who’s in the midst of hiring Office Space-esque efficiency experts to figure out how to cut costs (i.e., lay people off). His wife, Carolyn, and daughter, Jane, seem to have strong contempt for him. Essentially, he’s achieved the American dream but can’t enjoy it (like, I suspect, so many).
One day, while watching his daughter perform her cheerleading routine at a basketball game, his eyes fall upon Angela, her daughter’s sireny best friend. He has those thoughts most men his age probably have but would never admit to another person. Suddenly, he emerges from his slumber. He quits his job in a Peter Gibbons-like fashion (only with blackmail), buys a Ferrari, and starts smoking pot with the neighbor’s son. To call this a midlife crisis would not be doing it justice; he’s having an existential experience.
Now, the pro-single part: Lester and Carolyn start having loud fights. And Carolyn is not suddenly upset with her husband; this has been building for years. In Lester’s words, “you liked it when I was quiet.” And these two aren’t simply not in love with one another. They hate each other. Carolyn says, “Don’t think I won’t divorce you; I will.” I’m sure many married folks are thinking this, but to act on it…
There is a romantic subplot between Jane and Ricky, Lester’s pot dealer. But it’s sweet, it fits the troubled characters, and it’s probably short-lived. I’m guessing they’ll grow to be as dysfunctional as their parents and raise kids with similar problems.
I intuit the reason American Beauty won Best Picture is that it looks behind the scenes of that picture-perfect suburban life most of us tend to view as the normal standard of living. It was made before the era of social media, but I can only imagine what the writers might have done with the family’s image if it were made today. The perfectionist Carolyn spouts self-help mantras like “To be successful, you must project an image of success.” But when the cameras are off and out of sight, people like her are crying into their wine glasses and wondering “what if I hadn’t gone this route?”