American Beauty was Sam Mendes and Alan Ball’s cinematic masterpiece, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Let’s take a look at this 90s tragicomedy that dismantles the American Way of Life. Plus, there are a few tasty recommendations here that are similar to American Beauty.
The 1990s were undoubtedly Kevin Spacey‘s decade. After having seen him in films such as Seven, and after delighting us with titles such as The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and The Negotiator, Spacey was a star that couldn’t be stopped. However, his career breakthrough came in 1999 with a film directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball.
Most likely, when we mention American Beauty, we all immediately remember the scene in the bathtub. That Lester (Kevin Spacey) is in the middle of a wet fantasy, entering the bathroom to find the object of desire: his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) in the bathtub naked and covered in rose petals. However, there is much more to this film than the sexual fantasy of a mediocre, peripatetic American father of a family doomed to failure.
American Beauty is set in suburban America, focusing on the Burnham family, comprising patriarch Lester, his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and their teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). They live the American dream. A house, a garden, and both parents are working. However, happiness is not an element in their stagnant, grey lives. There is a lack of spark, a lack of passion, and desire. Fed up with the monotony, Lester will radically try to start over again, correcting everything he detests about his existence. Unfortunately, he will not consider who he is dragging along with him in this personal catharsis, initiated when he becomes obsessed with his daughter’s best friend, the provocative and sensual Angela.
Deconstructing of the Happy Family
A Scandalous Film Before the Scandal
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly7rq5EsTC8 Basically, and to put it bluntly, American Beauty is how Alan Ball, through Sam Mendes, criticizes and destroys the concept of the American Dream: the house, the middle-class jobs, the comforts, the occasional luxury, the perfect daughter, the little garden, the professional success, the holidays in Disneyland, and so on.
To this end, the film shows us the point of view (mainly, but not univocally) of Lester, the father, who exhibits the same exhaustion as the rest of his family. Fed up with a meaningless life, full of obligations and stress, Lester chooses to break away from it all, and amid this “personal rediscovery,” he wants to make up for the lost time, trying to feel like a twenty-something again. During this process, Lester finds himself captivated by Angela, a rather daring and somewhat roguish teenager. However, Lester is only the epicenter of an earthquake that will affect everyone’s lives around him. The rest of the family, even his neighbors, and friends are not happy either. This clash in search of happiness shows a cousin in which no one is happy with what they have, despite having everything.
Throughout the story, we see how different characters deal with their frustrations of this failed American dream, in which they are not fulfilled, and how each tries to deal with their dissatisfactions. In this respect, Mendes and Ball are narratively very creative. On the one hand, their story does not try to be a destructive critique of the system but rather exposes how people can feel and act when the system does not work.
At the same time, this critique is devastating against the tapestry of false appearances generated in suburban societies where everything is seemingly perfect. Nevertheless, this critique in American Beauty is intelligent, as it does not seek to demonize or beatify the characters. The film exposes their points of view, and thanks to this, we can understand their motivations, making us know even the most miserable and selfish and empathize with them.
But this is not only due to Mendes’ skill, which also provides us with beautiful photography and a careful selection of shots, making this film a magical work. A large part of American Beauty’s success is due to its very complete cast. From Bening, suffocated by the material world but clinging to it, to the masterful Spacey, peripatetic as we say, but full of life and love, or what can we say about the antagonistic Wes Bentley and Chris Cooper in the role of father and son. Their work on screen is a feast for the eyes.
The Never-Ending Red
Desire and Tragedy
We couldn’t end this review without talking about the color red, which is implicit in the film. It appears almost always against a white background, whether in the form of underwear, the door of a house, lips, rose petals, shoes, and even blood! But, we are not looking for the meaning of this color’s presence so subtly inserted, as many studies on the subject postulate different points of view and observations. Some say that red symbolizes Lester’s rebellion against conformity and his worn-out existence. Others point out that it represents impulses and desire, or the forbidden, and even the color of liberation, as shown by its association with the death of a particular character.
There are interpretations to suit all tastes. We are not going to go into that. However, what we will say is that American Beauty has lots of very subtle, almost subliminal messages. We recommend a second viewing so that, once we know the story, we can detect those messages and clues that Mendes leaves us like a trail of bread. We doubt that we will find a unique truth. Quite the contrary! That’s why we encourage you if you have already seen it, to watch this film once more.
In case you want to judge for yourselves and refresh your memory with this title, we remind you that you can currently find this film in the Hulu catalog. But now, it’s time for our recommendations. Because such a vast movie usually creates a buzz around it, leading to similar movies which get done in a blink of an eye to get some of the blockbuster’s heat. Yet, we’ve chosen some of the most interesting ones that are similar to our beloved American Beauty. Let’s have a look!
Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick’s Last Creative Mistress
Eyes Wide Shut closes, for better or for worse, the filmography of a director who stirred up as many passions as hatreds, but who has his place in the history of cinema, whether those exquisite cinephiles who do not agree with one of the most essential filmmakers there has ever been like it or not. I still remember the uproar when we found out that Stanley Kubrick was fully involved in adapting Arthur Schnitzler‘s book ‘Dream Story,’ which talked about marital relationships through the fear of jealousy, sexual fantasies, and infidelity.
Kubrick wanted to update the story, setting it in 90’s New York, with the very fashionable Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – married during those years – as the main protagonists, showing off more than just their acting qualities, especially Kidman. So it turned out that many were expecting a quasi-pornographic Kubrick. The teaser with the two actors in front of the mirror while Chris Isaak‘s hot ‘Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing’ was an invitation to think about it when the director’s intention was precisely not to trivialize such vital themes in relationships as sex, trust and, above all, sexual fantasies.
The story of Eyes Wide Shut begins with the married couple, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), attending a lavish party hosted by Bill’s friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). While Bill chats with two attractive women who hit on him and later attends to an emergency for Victor, Alice dances with a stranger who tries to seduce her by talking about boredom in marriage, desire, and other sexual matters. That peculiar night will become a real discovery for the couple. Especially for Bill, when once at home and under the smoke of a joint, he listens attentively to a surprising confession from his wife. Once upon a time, Alice had wanted a man so much that if he had asked her, she would have given up everything for him. Thus, beginning the wild ride of the movie!
Call Me By Your Name
A Voice Louder than the Usual
We’ve been hearing about Call Me By Your Name for years now, as Luca Guadagnino‘s directorial work behind the camera has garnered endless praise since its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Sexual awakening and, by extension, the importance of first love are two essential elements in this tale of the romance between Elio (Thimotée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer). Put this way; it may sound like the only thing special about it is that it is about the relationship between two men, a subject in which Hollywood still shows a worrying deficit. However, Guadagnino’s telling of it makes it a unique film and an absolute delight that keeps you mesmerized throughout.
Call Me By Your Name is a marvel. A film that leaves you with a smile on your face for how well it does everything – even the end credits are marvelous – and leaves you with a sense of well-being similar to those unexpected breezes on a volcanic summer afternoon. It is nothing less than one of the best romantic films of recent years and has nothing to envy from any other Oscar nominee or even winner.
The Insanity of Male Perfection
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GIsExb5jJU There are many values to be appreciated in American Pycho if analyzed as an independent work, ignoring its literary background. The main one undoubtedly lies in its portrayal of superficiality and materialism, which has subtle touches borrowed from American Beauty. Although the movie doesn’t convey as fascinatingly and uniquely as the novel, it does capture unambiguously and provokes a powerful reaction.
The aesthetic treatment, from the decoration of the interiors, the choice of exteriors, and the framing and photography – vast, empty planes, where white predominates – reflect the protagonist’s cold, hollow mind, who recognizes that he functions as a psychopath, incapable of feeling emotions as the temperature of the film raises as the character becomes increasingly intense. This insensitivity dissipates, allowing us to enter more easily into the story. A special touch of comedy introduced by Mary Harron helps us contemplate naturally what might seem exaggerated, although, at the same time, it distances us from the character before whom we limit ourselves to observing, without sharing anything with him: neither his envy, nor his rage, nor his frustrations.
The best thing about American Psycho is the performance given by Christian Bale, who becomes entirely Patrick Bateman, one of those characters whose names are already in our memory, as if they had existed. In his excellent work in the opening bars, we see the absurdity of ostentation, a complex about what is beyond his reach, an over-emphasis on the accessory, and a recalcitrant narcissism. Bale transforms himself during the final crescendo, and his incarnation of the psychopath increases, without ever losing credibility, until it becomes frightening.
Lost in Translation
Love through Silence
Lost in Translation is one of those rare titles that divide film fans; some hate it and those who worship it. And it’s not hard to see why. This is not an accessible film, not an easy movie to consume. It could even be said that nothing happens for a large part of the film (at least, nothing concrete).
Sofia Coppola immerses us, in her way, in the brief and desperate encounter between two individuals lost in a foreign place; they don’t know who they are or what they are doing, but they move on. The director places the camera in front of these characters without asking them to do anything special, asking us to observe and understand them as they are, in intimate scenes, to breathe their same air, to feel their same loneliness and disorientation. This is obviously what bothers their detractors. They think it lacks more movement, more speed, a more defined story without so much space and silence. But that is precisely where its charm lies.
Scarlett Johansson, who plays Charlotte, an American girl who spends a few days in a hotel while her husband works. Lost in Translation opens with the young star’s sexy buttocks; it is the first shot we see, and the title appears above it, while the screen fades to black. A voiceover welcomes us to Tokyo. We then see the Japanese capital streets, illuminating the night, through the tired eyes of Bob Harris, a famous actor who has just arrived from the United States to shoot some TV commercials. Brought to life by the brilliant Bill Murray.
Answer: Sam Mendes delivers his message of the consequences of achieving the American dream by showing all the misfortunes of this family and encourages society to find the beauty in the world by prioritizing your life properly so life is not gone to waste.
Answer: The girl that Lester dreams of in American Beauty is the same age as his daughter, who is 16 years old.
Answer: The rose represents the illusion of beauty; a superficial beauty. This is because roses, although popular and expensive, are common. They’re the obvious choice for those wanting to romance their significant others.
Answer: There are a couple of reasons behind this title. This movie has numerous appearances of a specie of rose that is called American Beauty. Carolyn, Lester’s wife, is obsessed with this flower.
Answer: Although apparently set in the ‘Chicago’ suburbs, Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning drama was shot in California. The aerial shots of the neat, bland checquerboard neighbourhood are the suburbs of California state capital, Sacramento, as are the streets along which Lester Burnham and his neighbors jog.
As you can see, American Beauty had a few descendants who achieved their unique voices. Sam Mendes’ film marked an almost watershed moment in terms of outrageousness and taboo. In fact, along with Eyes Wide Shut, American Beauty shone in its shenanigans until the end of the best year of movies, that was 1999, and until the end of that great millennium.
Fortunately, many more films deal with sensitive or daring themes, ranging from mild to intense, as in American Psycho. Here I have only listed four such films, but of course, there are hundreds more, which will ignite your emotions in more ways than one.
Suppose you’re interested in continuing with a story that fits American Beauty. In that case, I can seriously recommend following up with Call Me By Your Name, as the 2017 film was just as fresh as the one starring Kevin Spacey back in the day. If you want to dive straight into the dark and mysterious, then stick with Eyes Wide Shut. But if it’s tranquillity and romantic tension between very different protagonists that you want, then Lost in Translation is the place for you. Further read:
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