What are the costs of living in a success-driven, consumer-oriented, image-obsessed society? This challenge to contemporary America’s suburban culture finds a voice in Sam Mendes’ 1999 movie American Beauty. The film’s complex subtlety underscores its implication that subtlety itself is a casualty in our society. American Beauty’s tagline exhorts viewers to “look closer,” but the film expresses ambivalence concerning what is revealed by closer inspection. On one hand, protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his young neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) speak of the unappreciated beauty surrounding us; however, Lester also begins to question the values of a world that seems perfect but is actually a suburban dystopia. Through their use of various filmmaking techniques, particularly cinematography and editing, Mendes and his collaborators create a vivid illustration of this dichotomy.
In terms of depth of narration, American Beauty is a remarkably subjective film. Mental subjectivity actually serves as a baseline and framework since the movie unfolds as a posthumous flashback narrated by Lester. The audience moves deeper inside Lester’s mind at various points in the plot, particularly during his fantasies about Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), a nubile blond cheerleader. In the film’s expository scene, Lester says in his voiceover that he feels “sedated,” and these four fantasy scenes focus the viewer on Angela as the cause for Lester’s awakening from white-collar drudgery. The scenes use a few point of view shots but also provide reaction shots of Lester. Outside of the fantasies, Mendes uses point of view shots for nearly all of the characters at some point. This perceptual subjectivity takes on the most significance through Ricky’s ever-present video camera and when Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), thinks he sees Ricky performing oral sex on Lester. Ricky’s camera becomes a motif that contributes to his characterization and the film’s overall meaning, while the homophobic Colonel’s misperception becomes vital to the plot because it causes him to finally disown Ricky and raises the possibility in the Colonel’s mind that Lester is a closeted homosexual like himself. In its range of narration, American Beauty may initially seem to focus heavily on the actions of its protagonist, but the film’s scope is actually much wider than that. Instead of staying with Lester, Mendes frequently uses cross-cutting to follow the other Burnhams and outside characters such as Col. Fitts. This enables the audience to know more than any single character, but the filmmaker withholds one key piece of information – the Colonel’s true motivations – until the movie’s final scene. Col. Fitts immediately seems like a volatile person, so the audience is inclined to watch his actions carefully; the attentive viewer will eventually realize that the Colonel is a much more complex character than he initially appears.
Perhaps the most significant element of American Beauty’s narrative structure is the film’s segmentation into three sections. The transitions between sections are signaled by the visual motif of a helicopter shot above the Burnhams’ neighborhood, along with the return of Lester’s voiceover, which plays only at these points and at the film’s beginning and end. The first segment is largely expository, introducing all of the major characters and how unhappy most of them are. Here Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball also plant the seeds of the major changes that will generally bring happiness to the Burnhams’ lives in the second section. However, during the final part of American Beauty, the consequences of the various characters’ actions tear the complex and tenuous web of relationships amongst them, destroying whatever happiness each had attained. . . .
. . . For a movie in which a video camera is a major motif, American Beauty makes an appropriately rich use of cinematography. As...