Why It Works: American Beauty
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
Guys. BIRDMAN won the Oscar for Best Picture last year. How cool is that? Whether or not it was your pick, it's nice to see the Academy members don't always play it safe when casting their votes. With the Golden Globes airing this weekend and Oscar nominations being announced next week, it'll be interesting to see which of 2015's less traditional films make the cut. My personal favorite Best Picture winner (let me know what yours is below) certainly checks the unorthodox box, though it's also standard Oscar fare in many ways. With no real plot, a dead narrator, and more than one scene featuring the 42-year-old protagonist saying hi to his monster, AMERICAN BEAUTY breaks all the right rules and holds the honor of 1999's Academy Award for Best Picture. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
Beyond anything else, AMERICAN BEAUTY is a character study. While Lester Burnham narrates the film as our protagonist, all six of the film's main characters eventually reveal themselves to be sympathetic, complicated, and vulnerable people. Lester himself is the frustrated everyman, bored with his life and about two seconds from cracking. Not only is it easy enough to root for a milquetoast character who wants more out of life, but the upfront knowledge that he is going to die adds another layer of sympathy and intrigue to the mix. Lester's wife Carolyn represents exactly what Lester deplores about the suburban mindset, her values based in appearance and financial success. As soon as we see the painful "I will sell this house today" scene, however, we see that Carolyn also feels beaten down by her lifestyle, though she chooses to repress her feelings rather than give credence to them.
"See the way the handle on her pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident."
Rounding out the adults is Colonel Frank Fitts, who, Like Carolyn, is driven by a "this is just how things are" mindset. We don't learn his story until late into the film, but, as expected, Frank is also covering up his true self by choosing to latch onto a false persona. Frank's son Ricky, on the other hand, represents the complete other end of the spectrum. Ricky lives exactly as his heart tells him, resulting in a fearlessness and sensitivity that serves as a catalyst to several characters in the film. While Jane is certainly the closest character in attitude to Ricky, we see moments of her being pulled into the world of appearance over substance, not doubt inspired by her friendship with Angela Hayes, a seemingly two-dimensional character whose vulnerability and true self are revealed in the sobering final scene.
Leave it to Allison Janney to break our hearts with less than four minutes of screen time.
WHY WE CARE:
An early draft of the film involved an investigation into Lester's murder, with Jane and Ricky's tape leading to their trial and Carolyn's gun and Frank's bloody clothes adding to the case. While this sounds pretty silly given the finished product, the "murder mystery" element of AMERICAN BEAUTY certainly helps arouse interest and curiosity in a relatively unfocused plot. The idea of peeling back the layers of a seemingly idyllic community to show what lies beneath is captivating, but there has to be more to drive the story forward. This is where the focus on Lester is key. Right from Lester's first scene with his supervisor, we see a character already about to snap. That said, Ricky's care-free nature and the fantasy of Angela certainly expedite Lester's awakening; rather than chasing a tangible objective, Lester is chasing freedom from mediocrity. Our sympathy for Lester goes along way toward letting this be enough of a driving force in the film, but the fascinating nature of the other characters and the whodunit approach keeps this from being just another slice of life film.
"Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser... and they're right. I have lost something"
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
The simple formula to close out your average Hollywood movie is to have your protagonist learn his lesson and ride off happily into the sunset. That's all well and good, but having your protagonist learn his lesson too late is so much more interesting. By the end of the film, Lester says, "I'm great," showing relief and satisfaction he probably hasn't felt since the summer he spent flipping burgers as a kid. "Man oh man... Man oh man oh man..." Bang. Dead Lester. Lester's death in this moment feels like punishment for all the years he let himself be unhappy. Where a character like Ricky strives to absorb all the beauty in the world, Lester let himself get caught up in the grind, losing gratitude, perspective, and self-respect along the way. So as not to end on a complete down note, Lester delivers a final monologue from beyond. It's the viewer's choice where exactly Lester is broadcasting from, but it offers a glimmer of hope that beauty doesn't stop when we do.
"Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
Since it's award season, let's break this section down by Oscar. Alan Ball's script (Winner: Best Screenplay) is the foundation upon which AMERICAN BEAUTY (Winner: Best Picture) stands. The dialogue is understated, funny, challenging, and biting, the characters are deep enough to drive the story, and flecks of symbolism contribute to both the aesthetic and philosophy of the story. Sam Mendes (Winner: Best Director) not only brought Ball's script to life but also made difficult decisions regarding what to cut and what to focus on. Mendes' direction in conjunction with Conrad L. Hall's photography (Winner: Best Cinematography) and Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury's editing (Nominated: Best Editing) find the balance between this being a light suburban comedy and a dark, distressing art film. Similarly, Thomas Newton Howard's score (Nominated: Best Original Score) is like standing in a Bank of America slowly sliding off the edge of a cliff. Finally, this film is nothing without the impressive performances. Kevin Spacey (Winner: Best Actor) and Annette Bening (Nominated: Best Actress) are absolute powerhouses, with Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, and Allison Janney rounding out the stunning cast. As is usually the case, it's not just one thing here that sticks out but rather a sum greater than its parts. Oh, and don't ask me what the roses mean. That's up to you.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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