The movie American Beauty shows the audience what could happen when a person realizes that the American dream is not what he thought it was. It is narrated by the main character Lester Burnham, who is a 42-year old suburban dad and a husband.
The movie looks back on his life. Lester is shown growing older and distant from his wife and daughter. He tries to escape from the reality, and the whole movie revolves around his struggle for liberation. The phenomenal performances by the lead actors and director’s amazing job developing the movie through great cinematography and storytelling is what has made this movie one of the best ever made. Lester Burhan, played by Kevin Spacey, works at an advertising company where he hates his job. He is also despised by his wife and daughter. For him, masturbating in the shower is the happiest moment of his day. Thora Birch plays the character of his daughter, Jane, who is moody and grungy 16-year old girl with self-esteem issues.
Ricky is the only son of Burham family’s new neighbor. He hides the fact he is a drug dealer from his overly disciplined father, Col.Fitts. Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is played by Annette Bening, who delivers an outstanding performance showing the characters competitiveness, whether it through that smile with an indication of depression or self-loathing tears and slaps in front of a mirror.
These main characters, along with their weird neighbors, play a wonderful role in developing the journey through the American suburbia. Lester is shown rather hilariously transitioning into his mid-life crises when he tries to liberate himself by quitting his job, buying his dream car, and start buying next-gen dope from his daughter’s boyfriend, Ricky. The director Sam Mendes makes a remarkable debut as he brilliantly uses cinematography and the characters to show the theme of this film. This of course would not be possible without Mendes’ veteran cinematographer: Conrad L Hall. For instance, the way Hall uses the lighting helps creating the mood of the audience. The use of low soft light in scenes involving Ricky and Jane helps to develop a romantic mood. Moreover, we see Lester Lifting weights in his garage to get in a better shape for Angela, but when he takes off his clothes in front of a window, he is shown to look extra chubby through his reflection and the effects of lighting. Further, Lester is shot from above in the first half of the movie to make him look small and perhaps trivial, but as the movie progresses, and he starts taking more control, he is shot from below to make him look bigger.
Besides, the makeup of Jane also helps to emphasize this point. In the beginning scenes, she is shown wearing a lot of unnecessary makeup but as she develops her relationship with Risky, her makeup gets lighter and lighter. The framing shots are also a unique feature of this film. The dinner table shots of the Burham family are an example of this.
Lester and his wife are seated and the two ends of the table while their daughter is seated in the middle. These shots show the developing distance between the couple and Jane trapped between them. The director also does a remarkable job of making certain themes apparent. For example, materialism is a recurring theme throughout the movie.
Lester is shown to live the “American dream” suburban life: great job, wife, children, cars, house etc. Further, Carolyn is also shown obsessed with materialism. She believes accumulation of wealth is what makes a person happy. The framing shot in which Carolyn is going back to her home after shooting guns comes to mind. In this shot, the gun besides Carolyn’s books about real estate suggest how lust can lead to death.
Also, perhaps a debatable theme of this movie is of change. All the characters go through drastic changes in their lives. Now, whether it was for good or bad is up to the viewer to decide, but the movie manages to force us to burst the bubble we are living in and look and life through a different lens. Moreover, this movie does show some flaws. Ricky is shown transfixed by an 11-minute video that he made which is nothing but a plastic bag flying in the air. He is shown awe-struck and overwhelmed by the beauty in this world. But what does he do for a living? He sells drugs.
Further, a structural problem is also visible as a scene was cut from the end. Without this scene, the precredit sequence does not make complete sense. Overall, it a great example of effervescent and intelligent storytelling and movie-making. That, coupled with, Hall’s remarkable use of camera and lighting makes it deserve the five academy awards it received.