Film Analysis: American Beauty
Film Analysis: American Beauty
Film Analysis: American Beauty
American Beauty (1999) was written by Alan Ball, creator of the HBO series 6 Feet Under, and directed by Sam Mendes. American Beauty centers around the Burnham family, who, on the surface seems like a picture-perfect, white, upper-middle class, suburban family. The protagonist of the film is the father and husband of the Burnham family, Lester, who, fed up with the boredom and monotony of his life, has an interesting “mid-life” crisis, that includes a very active crush on his adolescent daughter’s Lolita-type best friend.
The film follows the Burham family as each member (mother, father, and daughter) transition into new stages of their lives. Lester’s transition is the most notable and spectacular. He loses his high paying job and begins working at a fast food restaurant. While working the drive-thru, he discovers that his seemingsly prudish wife is having an affair with one of her real estate agent colleagues. Lester also begins smoking marijuana for anxiety and relaxation (and as a symbol of his rebellion against his capitalist lifestyle) during his transition. He buys his marijunana from the son of the family of his new next door neighbors, Ricky Fitts. Ricky is a bit odd, and there are rumors about him at school. Ricky attends high school with Lester’s daughter Jane, who is blossoming into her sexuality and with Jane’s friend, Angela, who is already sexually flourishing. Angela is the cheerleader who Lester has a large and inappropriate crush on.
In a way, all of the characters in the film are experiencing a type of adolescence or some stage of puberty. Lester and his wife, Carolyn, experience the kind of sexual exuberance and awakening that typically happens during the teenage years, but happens in later stages of life, too. Even though they both experience this, they do not share these experiences with each other as husband and wife. Jane, Angela, and Ricky are biologically and developmentally teens, so their sexual awakenings are spot on for their ages.
Ricky’s father, Colonel Frank Fitts, is a strict and rigid marine. He runs his family as if he were running a team in the marine corp. Over the course of the film, the audience comes to understand that part of Frank’s rigidity and meanness is a result of his repressed homosexual desires. In Frank’s persistence to control his son, he discovers his son is selling marijuana, and watches a sale between Lester and Ricky in Lester’s garage. Frank’s view of the transaction is obscured partially and he mistakenly believes that Ricky is performing oral sex on Lester in addition to selling him marijuana. In the third act of the film, Frank makes a sexual pass at Lester and Lester rejects him. This rejection sends Frank into a depression and dangerous, downward spiral leading to fatal consequences.
This film was released in 1999, so from the perspective of the second decade of the 21st century, many of the aspects that seemed so progressive and new age are, now, far more normative in this time and modern American culture. The film portrays several stereotypes and yet dismantles those stereotypes as well. Frank is a stereotype of a brutal and ruthless closeted military man, part of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military culture. Lester is a stereotype of a bored and depressed suburban “salary man.” Carolyn is the stereotype of the bored, professional, suburban “desperate housewife.” Even Ricky, as the weird, attractive, loner, is the stereotype of the white, suburban drug dealer. Angela is the stereotype of the blond, oversexed cheerleader who uses her sexuality to lure and manipulate men of all ages for her own objectives. The film is littered with these stereotypes, which were not so normal back in 1999. This film and other pieces like it helped make these tropes and metaphors the stereotypes they are today. From the 21st century, some of these character types might be offensive or outdated, but the way the film utilizes and explores these stereotypes is not outdated — it is innovative and captivating, which speaks to why this film won so many awards and received both critical and audience praise.
Carroll, N., & Choi, J. (ed.) (2006). Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.
LoBrutto, V. (2005). Becoming Film Literate — The Art and Craft of Motion Pictures. Westport, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Nichols, B. (2010). Engaging Cinema. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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