At first I hated American Beauty. I saw it as a depressed, ego driven, modern fairytale about lives meandering out of control and the hopeless unfulfilled desires that make up the human experience. It's exactly what the movie is, but I thought what kind of view is that?
Blame it on the optimism of my 15 year old self, but at the time I didn't want to view life like that. I still don't. The funny thing is that when I did end up watching the film again I was able to see the wit that really makes American Beauty such a joy to watch. Depressing only as a dark comedy can be, the core message of the film is really about shaking ourselves of the daily apathy we comfortably surrender to. I think I had to grow up a bit to really appreciate this.
To me, American Beauty is still one of the best cinematic examples exploring themes of desire, image, and perception. The need to hide, cover up, and lie are fundamental to the illusion of perfection. It's no wonder that when we strive for this we end up continually hurting ourselves. American Beauty sets up numerous brilliant scenes with this notion in mind - the scene at the drive thru window for example.
The hilarious dramatics of the characters are essential to both building up and then destroying the barriers that we all create. The core meltdown that takes place within American Beauty is really about bringing the complexity back into the 'image' of modern life, and as explored literally in a scene between actors Thora Birch and Wes Bentley, standing naked for the world to see us for who we really are. Thinking of yourself in these terms can be frightening, but it's also what makes the film so poignant.
It's not all so heavy though. As much as the concept is captivating, the strength of American Beauty is wrapped up in the impulsive comedy that keeps the film fresh. The family dynamic is wonderfully chaotic thanks to the performances by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, whose relationship in the film fluctuates between forced civility, contempt, and brutal honesty with some of the best dialogue in recent memory. The discussions around the dinner table are priceless.
Ultimately, I feel the need to come back to the fairytale of it all. Looking at this film realistically tells a depressing story about the state of things, and even though I'm not crazy about that post-modernist 'everything sucks' mentality, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. We're made to realize just how precious our own existence is and that it really is largely through our own choices and perspectives that we learn how to appreciate it. The greatest upsets are the things we deny ourselves in the face of who we really are. While the superficial fantasy can be fun, beauty simply has to be more than what's on the surface to be truly fulfilling.
I don't think I could actually stand any of these people if they were real. However, in this bubble they all play off of each other like fire and gasoline, which is pretty exciting to watch. They're all perfectly messed up in an 'aren't-we-all' kind of way, and for the sake of my own delicate emotions, I think it's something that we should all get a little bit more comfortable with. Imperfection is the one thing we all have in common.