American Beauty and the Dark Side of Suburbia

Highly acclaimed science fiction writer J. G. Ballard once described suburbs as “the death of the soul,” an endless void of cul-de-sacs, strip malls and fast-food restaurants. It’s a place where “one’s almost got to get up in the morning and make a resolution to perform some deviant or antisocial act, some perverse act, even if it’s just sort of kicking the dog, in order to establish one’s own freedom . . . Suburbs are very sinister places, contrary to what most people imagine.”

Every couple of years, some ambitious filmmaker comes along attempting to capture the dark side of suburbia. Films like The Swimmer (starring Burt Lancaster), Blue Velvet (directed by David Lynch) and The Ice Storm (starring Kevin Kline) delve into the bleakness of the American dream turned nightmare. Lesser successful variations (actually complete failures) on the theme include such turkeys as The ’Burbs and Consenting Adults(which ironically starred Kevin Spacey when he was pretty much a nobody). Now along comes American Beauty, a film that carried with it such an avalanche of critical praise that I was actually apprehensive about going to the theater, afraid of the inevitable let down. However, I reluctantly made the move after I figured that there’s really nothing out there at this time worth wasting time over. Is American Beauty overrated? Hell yes! Is it filled with stereotypical characters? Damn straight! But it’s also a thoroughly entertaining film that’s worth 120 minutes of your time. It draws you into its satirical view of the world and refuses to let you go all the way until the end.

A self-described loser, 42-year-old Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has reached a dead end on the road of life. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) can’t stand him, his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) ignores him and he is trapped in a boring and meaningless job. His idea of a fun evening is watching the James Bond Marathon on TNT. The highlight of his day is jerking off in the shower; after that, “it’s all downhill from here.” In short, he’s living in a total stupor.

Things change the minute Lester eyes his daughter’s best friend, a beautiful young cheerleader named Angela (Mena Suvari) and becomes immediately obsessed with her. Soon thereafter, he scores some pot from a neighborhood kid, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who happens to be obsessed with Jane. One night at dinner, Lester calmly informs his family: “I quit my job, told my boss to fuck himself and blackmailed him for $60,000.” He then takes a job flipping burgers at Mr. Smiley’s fast-food restaurant (which is a notch below Stuckey’s) and starts hanging out in the garage, listening to Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” pumping iron and smoking pot. In a yearning to return to the happiness of youth, Lester also purchases a bright red 1970 Pontiac Firebird. In other words, Lester forges ahead with reckless abandon, thoroughly recognizing the futile and ridiculous aspects of his quest but enjoying the ride nevertheless.

Lester isn’t the only character in the film who has been living a lie. Just about all of these characters have created their own façade, although only a few are attempting to break through to some semblance of reality. Carolyn, an image-conscious real estate agent who also happens to be a control freak, starts an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the self-proclaimed “King of Real Estate.” Jane falls in love with Ricky, who is just trying to survive a series of brutal run-ins with his father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), a psychotic ex-marine who makes his life a living hell. Ricky is obsessed with videotape and in one of the film’s most effective throwaway scenes, he shows Jane his favorite image, a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

Lester narrates the film from beyond the grave just like William Holden’s screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In fact, he informs us at the beginning of the film that he will soon die, although he adds, “In a way, I’m dead already.” His quest to escape his destiny is snuffed out with a bullet to the brain by an unseen assailant on a dark and stormy night. However, Lester has won a small victory, for at least he can say that he actually infused some vitality into his life—even if it was only for a few weeks. How many of us can say the same thing as we set our alarm clocks for 5:59 AM, grab a breakfast burrito and head out into rush-hour traffic toward a day of drudgery at a meaningless and unrewarding job?

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