Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis, decides to turn his hectic life around after developing an infatuation with his daughter's attractive friend.
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Sam Mendes (1999)
There is no end of existent praise for this film, and I tremble to add to it. Color palette, characters, dialogue, acting, direction, story—all first rate. This is the first movie I ever watched and thought “wow, that's a perfect movie.” Not only can I find no actual fault in it, but there is no bad or unfinished taste left in my mouth from it. Maybe a bit calculated in feel, but even that fits with the film's being from the protagonist's post-death point of view.
What's neat is that, originally, this death was meant to be the focus of a court room drama. Again, set post death, from his perspective, but with a court room frame. The stoner kid and his camera on trial for the murder. I'm glad they went without it. Without, there is a lovely ambiguity and no chance for easy answers or for the entire affair being reduced to a game of clue and/or episode CSI.
Edited aÅŸa, we are presented with our narrator and a vivid cast of secondary characters who add to each other and interact seamlessly. Many movies have tried pulling this off and few succeed. Most end in a series of vignettes that somehow tie together, like Love Actually or Babel. Time gets chopped up evenly on the storyboard, so the characters balance out—time wise. So, the audience is supposed to sympathize with all of them... equally...
Nice sentiment, whatever.
Many movies, like Across the Universe, try pulling off the one story from different perspectives, or a small community interacting, but only American Beauty realistically gives all its secondary characters enough weight and depth that they could support their own full length stories easily.
But that would be moot if the courtroom had been allowed to prevail.
As it is, we just have a narration of the last year of Lester's, Everyman's, life circa 1997. If we'd opened with a courtroom, the drama would focus on the verdict, but this way the drama is subsumed so that when scenes where violence happens that violence is all the more harsh. A plate of asparagus hitting a wall is hardly tense if compared with the possibility of some kid's brain frying for our entertainment/justice. Everyman's life would be mundane except for his death, but this way the fascination in an ascent to self discovery.
Similarly, the growth of the supporting characters is allowed to flourish without a courtroom. American Beauty, though ending with the death of our protagonist, churns up the possibilities of life and stirs the viewer's own desire for sublime within the ordinary. Besides, the children of the doomed have plans for their life! If the courtroom had been allowed to prevail, we would no doubt see these plans thwarted and therefore end on less uplifting note.
Of the three children in question, the daughter's growth, is probably the most important for the viewer. As the actual spawn of the dead protagonist it is her human responsibility to carry on his work. Thankfully, Ball made another crucial choice: he did not hit us over the head with this symbol. No, she, like every teenager, hates her parents. Furthermore, her actions hinge on so many different people's opinions of her that, while the courtroom scenario would allow her more screen-time (being the girlfriend of the “murderer”) the whole fiasco would stunt all the blushing promise of growth she shows when with him. In the scene with the famous plastic bag, she doesn't necessarily see the beauty he does in the bag, but the beauty in him for his simple and sublime love of the world. What Lester achieves just before death, she achieves – albeit vicariously – appreciation of the sublime in the mundane before leaving home to fulfill it.
The daughter's catalyst, Ricky, is a rather dashing allegory for turn of the century go-getters. Highly motivated both to appear perfect to parents and to make it in the world as yourself – freak or whatever – by whatever means necessary. It probably goes without saying that I have a giant crush on this character. As a person, he doesn't grow. This is probably why he is, bizarrely, the center about which this glorious film tilts. By staying still and letting other people meet him, he forces the whole machine a-lurchin'. Finally he makes a move for himself and delivers the crux of drama for both the courtroom version (being the one left holding the bagï¿¼) and the ambiguous version (taking the daughter off to freak central New York).
If Ricky were accused of murder, Carolyn's, the wife's, role would become wormish and all over despicable, rather than just confused and mildly hysterical. She is an obvious suspect, and her character, at the time of murder, is motivated to do nothing but cover the truth of every one of her actions. From the very beginning, except two quick shots, she is nothing but fake to everyone she interacts with. Getting Nailed by the King, and a small gasp just before Lester gets beer on her $4,000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk. These are minute and quickly covered up. Otherwise her pure self is expressed through guttural screams in private, and are quickly reprimanded and suppressed. Thus, if she were to be confronted as a witness she would only squirm and rely on her facade self. Without the courtroom, she is released from the forced growth of her little motivational tapes, thus sent in a different direction.
Lolita'sΩ role would be swallowed and reduced to tertiary rather than secondary if the courtroom reigned. As it is she acts as the perfect foil for daughter's role and the driving force of the protagonist's. However, because of shots of her washing her face, and crying on the stairs, we see her unstaged actions and therefore glimpse her motivation. With the addition of the courtroom, she'd be simply a witness, and an unreliable one at that. As an unreliable witness her character would lose any dignity regained by the soda/sandwich discussion, and be doomed to ridiculousness.
Most insignificant out of the lot would be Ricky's parents. Though they have small amounts of screen time, they are Lester and Carolyn's dysfunctional alter-egos. They would only be included in the trial as Ricky's parents. I doubt the fathers role as actual killer would be brought to light. This is infinitely depressing from every angle. The movie would suck. Totchka.
Last, but not least, the super cute gay couple that are Lester and Carolyn's hyper-functional alter-egos. They'd be even less of characters than they already are. They'd be passing thoughts, and trivialized baubles. As it is, they are clearly the hyper-functional end to suburban life. And that is nothing but awesome to me.
There you have it, American Beauty, not Crime Scene Investigation: Suburban Melodrama.