Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Seeing the 'Beauty' of Life

"Remember those posters that said, 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'? Well, that's true of every day but one — the day you die."

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey)

Middle–aged office worker Lester Burnham is the sort of man for whom masturbating during his morning shower is the highlight of his day.

In that regard, I suppose the protagonist of director Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," which premiered nationwide 15 years ago today, is not that much different from many, perhaps most, men who are leading quiet lives of desperation.

And it was his performance in this everyman role that won Spacey the Oscar for Best Actor.

The word beauty was used a lot — and in many ways — but the story wasn't even that direct.

"'American Beauty' is a comedy because we laugh at the absurdity of the hero's problems," wrote critic Roger Ebert. "And a tragedy because we can identify with his failure ..."

While most people probably can empathize with Lester when it comes to his feelings about his job, not everyone can relate to the rest of his experience — his disconnection from his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter (Thora Birch) or his fantasies about his daughter's cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari).

Still, the idea of blackmailing your employer when you quit your job probably appealed to quite a few people who saw "American Beauty" in 1999. I didn't see it until it came on cable so I don't know what motivated people to see it on the big screen — or what it was in the story they found particularly appealing.

Maybe the audience sympathized with Lester, who believed his wife and daughter thought he was a "gigantic loser.

"And they're right,"
he tells the audience. "I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn't always feel this — sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back."

The audience learns a lot about Lester by watching "American Beauty." It is about him, really, although he isn't the American beauty of the title. Do you suppose the American beauty is his daughter's friend? Lester often fantasizes about her, frequently picturing her laying naked on her back while rose petals come cascading down around her.

Lester tries to, I don't know, embrace the future by re–living his past. Life was simpler when he was a burger–flipping teen, getting high and getting laid every night so he blackmails his boss, applies for a job flipping burgers and starts working out so he will look good in the nude.

Ebert wrote that Lester was rebelling. That isn't my take on it. I think he was pursuing beauty — obsessively, at times, which could be confused with rebellion — and his daughter's friend was merely the most accessible representation.

The beauty of the title doesn't appear to be his wife, whose only real passion seems to be for her work as a realtor. She psyches herself up to sell a house, then slaps herself out of her funk when she fails to sell it. She does have some passion, though, which she saves for a competitor (Peter Gallagher), who tells her, "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times." It becomes her mantra.

His daughter loathes both her parents and has very low self–esteem. Her friend wants a career as a photo model — and sees sexual attention from males as an indication that she's on the right track.

And that was how life was for Lester and the people in his immediate circle — until a new family moved into the neighborhood, a retired Marine colonel (Chris Cooper), his introverted wife (Allison Janney) and their son, who wanted to be a filmmaker but was currently a marijuana smoker and dealer, which was how he could afford his high–tech equipment (his father thought he paid for it through catering). He, too, was pursuing beauty — through the camera lens. His favorite video was one he shot of a plastic bag dancing in the wind.

"Sometimes," he says while watching the video, "there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart is just going to cave in."


Watching the Burnham family eat a meal together is definitely not a beautiful experience. Excruciating is more like it — especially when Lester tells his daughter about his day (in which he quit his job and blackmailed his employer for $60,000) and his wife laughs hysterically, pausing long enough to tell their daughter, "Your father seems to think this kind of behavior is something to be proud of!"

Actually, when compared to the behavior of others in the movie, Lester's behavior doesn't seem so bizarre — almost rational, in fact.
"It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about."

Lester Burnham

And, at the end of the movie — and his life — Lester seems to have figured it all out.

I must say that I really liked the ending — not the part where Lester was killed by the homophobic Marine next door but the part after that, where the audience heard his voice saying, "I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world."

If that is symbolic of perfect acceptance, maybe Lester didn't figure it all out after all because then he said, "Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

Then he observed, "You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry. You will someday."

The movie won five Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actor (Spacey), Best Director (Mendes), Best Writing and Best Cinematography — and was nominated for three more.