There are few films that achieve the high level of quality exhibited by that of the 1990 beautiful tragedy, American Beauty. The film is a true masterpiece in both content and how this content is delivered to the viewers. It excels at being an enlightening and relevant drama about American life, and never fails to keep the audience entertained by providing many instances of well-placed humor. Every scene is filmed including metaphoric elements that not only show great stylistic and aesthetics, but also create a mood and feeling for the theme of the movie.
American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, is a film that is set in suburban America, in a normal neighbourhood, following the everyday life of the central protagonist, Lester Burnham, who is living the typical ‘American Dream’. He appears to have a great job, big house, loving wife and daughter and even a white picket fence. However, all is not as it seems as appearance can often be deceiving; if we just “look closer”, we as audience members soon see that he realises both his wife, over bearing and controlling Carolyn and jaded teenage daughter, Jane think that, in the words of Jane, he is “this gigantic loser” and they’re right. The character of Lester is initially portrayed as a depressed, sad and lonely forty-year-old man, deprived of freedom and struggling to find anything worth living for. However as the film progresses Lester’s persona as a character is dramatically developed with the introduction of an equally intriguing character, Angela Hayes.
Everything changes for Lester the night he is forced by his wife to his daughters school to see her perform as a cheerleader. There on the floor, engrossed in a pompon routin, parading and dancing around the court, he sees his ‘angel’: Angela his daughter's high-school classmate. Angela fulfills the stereotypical idea of what beauty physical beauty is. She is thin, blonde, big blue-eyed and immediately catches Lester’s attention; Angela is not Lester's highway to bliss, but she is at least a catalyst for his freedom (Ebert, 1999). His thoughts, and the dissatisfaction they stimulate, blast him free from years of emotional torture and bring him right back to his youth. It is from this moment on that Lester transforms into a spontaneous hormone-driven teenage boy, who smokes marihuana, works out, and quits his job all in order to impress his Angel-a. American Beauty uses Angela as the image of Lester’s broader want; that being his underlying desire for freedom and evidentially beauty. However, she symbolizes the potential underlying superficiality of physical beauty that is slowly revealed towards the end of the film.
The film portrays many of the hidden problems within the white picket fence American dream along with addressing the problems many Americans have with feeling free and accepting their own identity. The film shows the vastly different worlds that people can live in whilst still living on the same street, and the disorder and frenzy that lies veiled in a society that we all try to portray as being as perfect as possible. In doing so, American Beauty reveals that the only way to calm the chaos is to find beauty in everything. To “look closer” is a must for truly understanding and identifying with the continuous bombardment of symbolism that is constantly being illustrated in this film. American Beauty portrays such themes as the falseness in lust, power and appearance and that we need to remind our selves “…of all the beauty there is in the world”, as beauty is a matter of opinion. Beauty however, is the most significant and explored theme in American Beauty. Another prevailing theme is the notion of the characters journey and transformation throughout the film. Lester’s journey can almost be compared to one from childhood from adulthood, figuratively speaking as evidentially, he steps into a mature, paternal phase where he takes responsibility and finds meaning in life, as an adult.
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