American Beauty is a drama that follows dissatisfied suburban father Lester Burnham (Spacey) as he experiences a mid-life crisis. The film is often heightened to an almost dreamlike quality, with attetion paid to the difference between reality and appearances.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider and The Sixth Sense. In addition to Best Picture, American Beauty also won Best Actor in a Leading Role (Spacey); Best Cinematography; Best Director; and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
When I first watched this movie more than a decade ago, I appreciated the filmmaker's craft but found it difficult to identify with the man character, an ordinary schmo trapped in a loveless marriage, living a bloodless, organized life.
Lester is distant from both his wife, real-estate agent Carolyn (Bening) and teenage daughter
Jane (Birch). So when he develops an infatuation for Jane's attractive cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), he escapes into fantasy. With new reason to live, he makes bold moves to shake up his life.
As interesting as his story was, I was no more capable of identifying with him while rewatching it recently. Sadly, though, another aspect of the movie soon resonated with me. From the beginning of the film, the viewer knows that somehow, Lester will die within a year. He tells you this in the opening narration, and throughout the movie, this knowledge is always in the back of the viewer's mind.
So, too, was I aware of my dog, Una's, impending death when, a little more than a month ago, she became ill and stopped eating. As I took her to vet visits, as I cared for her and tried to entice her to eat, I was always aware that death lurked over her left shoulder.
The movie argues that, even in the face of desperation, loneliness, and mortality, life is beautiful. This sentiment is expressed by next-door-neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a quiet would-be filmmaker who sees beauty in such forgotten places as a dead pigeon or a floating plastic bag.
Likewise, I found beauty in the small moments before Una's passing. I remember giving her a treat and being tickled by her furry mouth on my fingers. "This sensation," I thought, "is worth remembering." I snuggled her close and smelled her particular fur (like a slightly musky sweater). I watched her through my son's eyes as he smiled at her in wonder, sticking his hands out eagerly to pet her.
That is the message of this film, brought to life with compelling visuals by Mendes. He makes great use of color, especially the color red, to show a heightened sense of the awareness of beauty. Of course, the film's title also has another meaning, as the rose named American Beauty is notorious for often being rotted at the roots. In other words, while ordinary life may be beautiful, many of the things we idealize are actually ugly underneath.
I still have difficulty appreciating Lester's mid-life crisis, but I can now feel the emotional impact of a film I previously appreciated only for its craftsmanship.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
A rose by any other name may be still be beautiful.