Wednesday, March 20, 2013

American Beauty (1999)


     A couple years ago on “Reel Christianity”, I wrote an article about one of my favorite movies ever, “Casablanca”. Known now as having what many call the greatest screenplay ever written, “Casablanca” is the story of a man’s sacrifice of his love in order to serve a greater cause. In the end, the main character does not get what he wants; instead, he gets what he needs. (And yeah, sorry for spoiling the ending, but like I always say, go watch the movie yourself.) Today’s film, “American Beauty”, is quite different from “Casablanca” in terms of its content, but it feels to me like another story of a man not getting what he wants but rather what he needs.

     The film is directed by British filmmaker Sam Mendes, known recently for breathing new life into the James Bond saga with “Skyfall”. But “American Beauty” was his first film, and it won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and Actor. That actor, Kevin Spacey, plays Lester Burnham, a middle-aged office worker who is going through a mid-life crisis. His wife Carolyn and daughter Jane (Annette Bening and Thora Birch, respectively) do not appreciate him; his employers are on the verge of laying him off; and he has become very sexually frustrated, as we see in somewhat graphic detail as he takes a shower. (Note: this film is definitely not for kids.)

     Then one night, at a school basketball game where Jane is cheerleading, Lester looks at the group of girls and identifies one in particular: Angela (Mena Suvari), a blond teenager who happens to be Jane’s best friend. Lester immediately is fixated, as he begins fantasies about Angela that aren’t necessarily graphic, but are still slightly gross considering that he’s old enough to be her father. When he picks Jane up after the game, he stutters as he talks to Angela as if he is a teenage boy again himself. Jane is embarrassed, Carolyn is indifferent, and Lester is now awakened.

     Lester spends pretty much the rest of the film trying to re-prioritize his life, if for the wrong reasons. He starts exercising more, saying he wants to “look good naked”—previously he overheard Angela telling Jane (probably somewhat jokingly, or at least that’s what I’d like to believe) that he would look more sexually attractive if he worked out. He quits his job at the office and starts working at a fast-food restaurant—where one day he finds his wife at the drive-thru with another man, though he has apparently lost all interest in his marriage and doesn’t care in the slightest.

     He also starts doing some drugs thanks to the young drug dealer next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), whose family just moved in and whose father is a retired Marine Corps colonel (Chris Cooper). Ricky ends up developing feelings for Jane, who does so in return, and the two of them begin a relationship much to Angela’s dismay—she claims that Ricky is a creep for videotaping random things when he has his camera. But as Jane finds out, it’s not random for Ricky: he has a hobby of videotaping beautiful things that he sees, no matter how simple they are, even as simple as a plastic bag blowing in a breeze.

     Things start going wrong when Col. Fitts sees Lester and Ricky together from a distance and assumes they are sexually involved. He punishes Ricky for presumably being homosexual, and Ricky decides to leave the neighborhood with Jane. The colonel, however, we soon discover is secretly in the closet himself, as he goes to confront Lester that night and ends up kissing him, after which Lester immediately pushes him away. The colonel leaves, and Lester suddenly finds himself in his living room alone. His wife is driving home with a newly bought gun, aimed to kill him. Jane and Ricky are upstairs, contemplating leaving. And the only person downstairs with Lester, who happened to be over their house that night, is Angela Hayes.

     So at first, the two of them want to satisfy their sexual frustrations by seducing each other. And you’d think that Lester would want to go through with the act, as would Angela. But when Angela says she is a virgin and apologizes in case she is not a good partner, Lester instead gives her a blanket to clothe herself and comforts her. They talk in the kitchen for a little bit before Angela goes to the bathroom, and Lester sits at his kitchen table looking at a picture of him and his family at a happier time. Slowly, a gun approaches the back of his head and fires. Lester is dead, Col. Fitts is covered in blood, and Carolyn is alone.

     This all might sound complicated, but it’s really not. It’s actually kind of a satisfying ending, despite Lester’s death. But as his narration tells us (yes, he’s been narrating the story while dead the whole time), he’s okay with it:

LESTER: I guess I could be pretty [ticked] off about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes, I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. And then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold onto it… and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid, little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry; you will someday.

     In the end, Lester Burnham doesn’t get what he wants. He gets what he needs. He is able to sacrifice his lust for Angela for a truer, purer love. At least, that was my interpretation of the story. Many critics are still debating on what the film actually means, right up to the title—apparently there is a rose known as the “American Beauty”, which appears in Lester’s fantasies about Angela, but the title could also just be referring to this world Lester now sees clearly for the first time.

     Believe it or not, the first passage of Scripture that I thought of when I watched the movie was the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon, the son of David who wrote the book, spent his whole life looking for satisfaction on an earthly level. He was the wisest man on the planet. He had many wives and got more than enough “pleasure” on that level. He had everything a man could think to have; he was a king!

     And yet, Ecclesiastes 2:11 reads, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Solomon was never truly satisfied—that is, by a world “under the sun”. Doesn’t this imply that there is something over the sun? Perhaps this is what Solomon truly longed for, a higher power and a higher satisfaction.

     As a follower of Christ, I know that the only way to be truly satisfied in life is through God’s love and doing His will for me. But of course, being in a sinful world with all these earthly pleasures makes that journey much harder. But if I focus my eyes on Him and Him alone, that pleasure and that joy that He gives me will satisfy every desire of my heart. I pray that you would have that kind of faith today, as would I.

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