The secret to American Beauty’s success is in its title – beauty. Alan Ball’s sublime tale of suburban enlightenment is crammed with memorable performances, surprises and one-liners. Its beauty lies in its achingly accurate depiction of the pressures of family life, and the trappings and unhealthy distractions that work and money can bring. In life, most people believe that they are right most of the time. But they probably aren’t. American Beauty brought this contradictory side of human nature to the screen in a gorgeously paced, gorgeously dark character led comedy/drama which just fizzles in every scene.
The beating heart of 1999’s Best Picture is Lester Burnham, played to a tee by Kevin Spacey in a role which defined his career. The 42 year old self-proclaimed “massive loser” is awoken from corporate and marital slumber after his daughter’s friend, Angela sets off a sexual fantasy which reinvigorates his entire life. Buoyed by the renewed motivation to “look good naked,” Burnham begins to realise, irrationally or not, that life is too short to let rules and social conformity be your master. Whatever the cost.
The 42 year old self-proclaimed “massive loser” is awoken from corporate and marital slumber after his daughter’s friend, Angela sets off a sexual fantasy which reinvigorates his entire life.
It’s Lester’s younger line manager, Brad, who is first to experience the full force of his mid-life rebellion. Earlier in the film, Brad had asked Lester to write a letter to explain in detail his contribution to the company, in order to weed out the redundancies. Where previously Lester would have done whatever he could to save his mundane job, he fulfilled the fantasies of every working man in the audience by telling his boss to “go fuck himself” in the most delicious way possible.
His letter starts “My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men's room so I can jerk off while I fantasize about a life that doesn't so closely resemble Hell.” Brad tells Lester to clear his desk, but he responds by demanding a year’s salary plus benefits as payment for him keeping schtum about the director “buying pussy with company money.” He tops this by also asking if Brad could prove that he didn’t offer to save Lester’s job “if I let you blow me.” Brad, beaten, can only say “Man, you are one twisted fuck.”
To which Burnham responds heroically – “Nope, I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.”
This line sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Despite our careers, and despite our self-inflicted social conformity, we all have nothing to lose every day, until the day we die. And isn’t that beautiful?
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