Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening
Lester, our main character, is the narrator throughout the film; he takes us through the last years of his life, as we notice the evolution of characters and the build up of suspense and mystery progressing scene after scene. The timeline of the movie goes backwards as we were hearing a voice over of an already dead man which made us find out the ending of the movie without revealing the surprises and plot twists.
Lester is going through a midlife crises driven by his hopelessness and routine and lack of passion in his life. He finds himself hated by his daughter, he is sexually deprived by his wife and feels disrespected and shut down as well as being fed up by his full time boring job.
Carolyn his wife, is a materialistic, perfectionist person who can’t tolerate failure and thinks that only success in her job will determine her as a person. On the exterior she appears as a person who has it all together but on the inside she is falling apart. She is so much into appearance and image that she lost the spark that was once in her.
Jane, their daughter is a teenager who is angry towards her parents and is somehow neglected by them she has a distant relationship with her father and is uncomfortable with the overall house environment. She wants to change her physical self to make a certain statement; in some scenes we see her influenced by her friend Angela but in most of the scenes we see her being true to herself and pursuing the people that has the same mindset as hers (Ricky).
Angela, Jane’s friend, boosts her ego by talking about her sexual experiences and her physical beauty but throughout the movie we learnt that she created a wall of lies in order for people to like her, she is a virgin who faked her reality to impress others and that’s because of her longing for someone to find beauty in her where she couldn’t find it in herself.
Colonel Frank Fitts, their next door neighbor, lives in complete denial and uses homophobia as a way to suppress and hide his true feelings and projects this suppression on his family by treating his son in an abusive way and being so strict and firm even with his wife. We see Frank Fitts in several scenes with a contrast on his face and this lighting method was used to represent his double personality and that he is hiding something.
Barbra Fitts, Frank’s Fitts wife, lives in fear of her husband, she’s a very submissive person with low self-esteem we always see her apologizing even for the slightest things, she lives by the rules that her husband imposed on the house and appears traumatized and depressed.
Ricky, their son, is unlike any other character in the movie, he is detached from the conformist fake world and searches for all the beauty in it, he thinks that beauty is about how we look at things. He filmed a plastic bag floating in the wind and told his girlfriend Jane that this was the best thing he filmed , he glorifies the things that people find useless; even trash. Ricky is free and he’s not trapped in the ideology of life that’s why he’s the only one who sees so much beauty in everything.
One of the things that makes American Beauty so interesting is how it integrates side characters within the story and how they relate to one another and how much they are developed. The protagonist in the movie is Lester and he has a goal that he wants to achieve and the way the side characters are engaging in the story either by helping him or preventing him to achieve that goal makes you relate to them because of the emotions that drive their actions in their journey of change or healing.
Colors and Symbolism
We can see the colors red, white and blue in nearly every shot of the movie, these are the colors of the American flag and they were intended to be visible in the movie.
When Lester first saw Angela his desire and passion was symbolized by the color red (flowers coming out of her chest)
In the scene where Lester was stuck in his boring job we saw the red items on his desk trapped and hidden behind other objects which meant that he doesn’t find passion nor desire in his job
When Lester started to rebel against his marriage he did that with buying a new red car, he started working out with a red shirt and in those scenes red not only represented passion but it also represented the life force that he is trying so hard to hold on into and we can notice in the first frame of the movie his wife Carolyn cutting off a red flower from her garden which meant that she is cutting off Lester’s life force and this also points out on how Carolyn wasn’t interested in making things beautiful rather than making them perfect, instead of enjoying the natural beauty of the flowers and let them grow naturally she was trying to make them look flawless by arranging them in a very precise way, for her, beauty and perfection are the same thing; that’s where we can conclude that the red flowers that were placed around the house represents only surface beauty, it’s like fake beauty that has no depth which matches Carolyn’s personality very well because she only cares about appearance and superficial materials.
We often see Carolyn wearing white and blue, white represents the perfection that she always strives to have and blue represents confidence, she also decorated her house with white and blue which means that she is controlling her husband. We can notice the photos of the family around the house and in one of the photos we see Carolyn dressed in red which means that she used to be passionate this can justify why her husband got attracted to his daughter’s friend Angela and this was because he found in her the passion and freedom and the care free attitude, the things that used to exist in his wife but they no longer do.
In the scene where Carolyn was moping the house that she wanted to sell she takes off her clothe and we can see her in a red lingerie this means that only when she is completely alone she allows her wild side to emerge she is so hard on herself even her Real Estate sign is white and blue, until she met the successful Real Estate worker “Buddy Kane” as written on his big red sign, and throughout the movie we see them on his bed with red sheets and red lamps until finally we see Carolyn starting to wear red clothe again which means that Buddy Kane brought back excitement into her and revived her passion with his successful image. Carolyn reacted to Lester’s youthful behaviors and lack of career success by sleeping with another real estate agent, his success attracted her because it is something she can’t find within herself and her professional career.
On the other hand, their neighbor’s house (Colonel Frank Fitts and his wife and son) has a totally different color palette. Their house is very pale, it’s almost without any colors at all, which means that her husband has sucked the life and the color out of the house. All we can see is a very small red decoration in the kitchen which means that the only pleasure his wife Barbra is allowed to have is cooking and we saw her smiling only in that one scene where she was cooking bacon.
Their son Ricky’s room is completely white symbolizing the pure environment that his father wants to keep him in (he makes him do drug tests, he doesn’t allow him to lock the door etc…). Ricky found his passion with Jane when he was seen lying on red bed sheets next to her in the last moments of the movie.
The movie's presentation of the flower and meaning changes according to Lester’s situation throughout the film. The director was hinting that Angela was lying about being sexually experienced and we can see that in the fantasy scene when Lester was fantasizing about walking in on her while she’s taking a bath as we can see white smokes in the room which symbolized Angela’s cleanliness and purity and the red flowers in the bathtub were a symbol of Lester’s lust.
Noting that when Lester found out the truth about Angela his attraction to her was gone he stopped sexually pursuing her and started treating her like a daughter and give her parental advice.
At the end of film Lester realized that he is happy with what he has and he wants to go back to how things where with his family and his happiness was portrayed by the gunshot who led to a release of the color red (blood). Lester died just as life started getting good for him again.
When Lester was called in to his boss’s office the first time he was still this hopeless miserable man, he was taken in a high angle wide shot, (his boss “Brad” was looking down at Lester). Lester already looked small being taken in wide shot and the high angle made him look even smaller meaning that his boss was the one who had power and control over him . He was seated in the middle of an almost empty room meaning that he is exposed and the lighting was dimmed and the background was flat meaning that he is trapped in darkness. Even the framing was purposely taken in an ugly way, there was too much head room and Lesley’s feet were cut off.
On the other hand, his boss Brad was taken in a low angle medium shot, he occupied a large portion of the frame which emphasizes his position of power and his dominance.
Noting that the overall décor of the company is ugly meaning that this company sucks the life out of its employees
When Lester met again with his boss in his office Lester was a changed man he had more confidence and he wanted to quit his job and blackmail the company. His boss Brad is not the dominant one anymore and this was shown by the over shoulder taken from Lester looking at Brad (Lester was in the foreground and Brad was in the background) and it seemed this time that Lester was looking down at Brad.
In the shot over Brad’s shoulder, Brad’s head was out of focus and a bit off the frame meaning that he is no longer important nor powerful.
It was very obvious from the beginning that Lester’s wasn’t passionate about his job and this was justified in the scene where we saw Lester’s reflection on the computer screen the numbers on the computer screen where aligned and parallel they seemed like prison cells and Lester was locked inside.
This movie presents a very spiritual idea of what beauty is and Lester reminds us that any day can be our last so we should always make the most of it.