American Beauty (1999), written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, is a cynical but also a poignant approach to an American suburb. Lester, the main character of the film, is a suburban father who arguably steps into a mid-life crisis. His uptight wife, depressed daughter and strange neighbors, all have their own struggles that eventually intersect with Lester’s. The film, with its outstanding actors and visual harmony, reveals the reality that’s lying behind outward appearances in a neighborhood and discusses materialism and patriarchy in 90’s America. The most outstanding part of American Beauty is the way it is confusing, riddling and sometimes pleasurably nonsensical just as life can be.
There is a paper on Lester’s office table that says, “look closer”, pointing the misleading appearances, and this concept embodies in both the characters and the style of the shots. Carolyn, Lester’s wife, is an ambitious real estate broker. She is characterized by having a very strongly and strictly formed perfect appearance of her life and marriage. One of the very first scenes in the film is the scene where Carolyn is tenderly taking care of the roses in the garden and talking to the neighbor while Lester is watching her from a window. Lester says: “That's my wife Carolyn. See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident.” which displays Lester’s frustration with her wife’s constant effort to achieve the perfect outlook. Getting tired of keeping certain appearances, Lester falls in love with his daughter’s cheerleader friend Angela and is compelled by the fantasized image of her in his mind. Angela, then, turns out to be very different from the figure in Lester’s mind which is another part of the film that distinguishes reality from what’s seen. The style of shots in the film also indicates “looking closer.” The shots are characterized as moving from general to the specific. This characteristic of the film is demonstrated even from the beginning with an establishing shot that shows Lester’s neighborhood and then zooms into his streets and finally bedroom. At the end of the film, it zooms out starting from the same bedroom to the image of the neighborhood. It provides the viewer the chance to look closer into a suburban family’s life for a year.
As Lester goes through his transition, the film criticizes materialism and companies in the modern society with a pleasant satire. It shows how society evolved to be materialistic, mundane and selfish. It conveys the frustrated life of an office employee and criticizes how some companies act in very inconsiderate ways towards the employees. Lester, who works at a consulting company, is faced with a newcomer “efficiency expert”, Brad, who wants all the employees to write a job description in detail to save their job. In the scene, Brad is shot from a low angle and Lester is shot from a high angle suggesting the difference of rank between the two characters. How the system of the companies legitimize this kind of requests from the employees and how they are willing to fire them effortlessly and thoughtlessly is emphasized. The scene that takes place in the living room featuring Carolyn and Lester is also very significant in explaining the effect of materialism in human relationships. Even though the scene is about Carolyn and Lester, wide angles are used regularly to establish the surroundings, in this case, a luxurious living room. Many shots in the film are composed to show that in modern life the materials occupy more space than relationships in people’s life. American Beauty delicately shows how people are controlled and shaped by their property without even realizing it.
Materialism discussed in the film is the result of America’s social and economic condition in the late 90s, so the film directly contextualizes the criticism in a specific time period. From the materialist perspective, the film resembles Fight Club which was also released the same year, 1999, that corresponds to the rise of the American economy. As the American economy grows distinguishable in the 1990s, middle-class jobs start to pay well, and the influences of advertisements increase. These factors lead people to over consumption. Eventually, the amount and quality of material one accumulates becomes the measure of success. This social and economic situation in America becomes a starting point for both films. In American Beauty, The Burnham family is a typical middle-class family of the 90’s. Both Lester and Carolyn work at big companies that pay enough for them to afford nonessential items like luxurious furniture. The film criticizes this economic and social change, that lead to material eventually occupying a huge space in one’s life, that it almost became one’s identity.
The actors are one of the most important components that made American Beauty very striking. Annette Bening, Kevin Spacey, and Thora Birch were wonderfully spot-on in their characters. Mentioning specifically to Kevin Spacey’s amusing performance which brought him an Oscar is a must. Having seen his other Oscar-winning role in The Usual Suspects, he is completely different and fully engaged in his character in American Beauty.
American Beauty accomplishes to describe a suburban family with unique visuality. It critiques materialism with its social consequences and reviews what we value and prioritize as modern people. It reminds us to look closer to the world and the people around us, rather than being content with superficiality. Aside from its visuality, American Beauty is also very special and touching for it’s a very tragic and pessimistic situation, but on the other hand, it values life and presents it as a gift. I strongly advise that people see American Beauty for it has a unique visuality and expression that composes poignancy and the joy of life.