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Film / American Beauty

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"...look closer."

American Beauty is a 1999 American dramedy film that won the Best Picture Oscar. It was the breakout film for writer Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) and director Sam Mendes. Chris Cooper also got his launch here, and finally, Kevin Spacey won his second Oscar here.

As to the plot, the opening narration tells it all:

"My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year, I'll be dead... Of course, I don't know that yet. And, in a way, I'm dead already."

The characters in the film:

  • Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a Henpecked Husband and personality-less advertising-magazine wage slave who feels trapped in a shallow and meaningless life. He is the film's Posthumous Narrator and main character, and the story concerns his efforts to find happiness. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser... and they're right."
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  • Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), his wife, head of a real-estate firm and a Stepford Smiler of alarming caliber. "My company sells an image. It's part of my job to live that image."
  • Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), their daughter of 16 years old. "Janie's a pretty typical teenager: angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass... but I don't want to lie to her." She resents the way her father has begun to withdraw from her, and, in the very first scene of the movie, takes someone up on an offer to murder him.
  • Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), who is on the cheerleading team with Jane and quickly becomes the object of Lester's fantasies, causing him to start an intensive work-out regimen in an attempt to seduce her. She acts more worldly and experienced than Jane, and isn't afraid to use her body to her advantage: "If people I don't even know look at me and want to fuck me, it means...I really have a shot at being a model!"
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  • Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the new next-door neighbor to the Burnhams and Jane's eventual love interest. He is a weird combination of Stalker with a Crush, Cloudcuckoolander and Shrouded in Myth (in regards to where he was before he moved here), and sees more clearly than anyone else in the cast. He is an experienced dealer of marijuana, becoming Lester's supplier, and carries a video camera everywhere to record interesting moments out of his life. "I didn't mean to scare you. I just think you're interesting."
  • Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), Carolyn's main business rival, the self-styled "King of Real Estate." He's powerful, success-minded, has enormously charismatic eyebrows, and appeals to her Stepford Smiler instincts: "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times." Eventually, the two of them start an affair. He also introduces Carolyn to the shooting range, where she picks up a Smith & Wesson once owned by a man named Chekhov...
  • Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Chris Cooper), a now-inactive Marine who fought in Vietnam. He's trying to raise Ricky in his own image ("You need structure... you need discipline"), which is meeting with limited success. He's also a flaming homophobe.
  • Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney), the colonel's silent, disjointed wife. She doesn't get many scenes, but Janney uses even her character's silence to communicate that there are some severe repression problems going on here.
  • Jim Berkley (Sam Robards) and Jim Olmeyer (Scott Bakula), a gay couple who are the Burnhams' next-door neighbors on the other side. Bakula has joked that these are the most normal people in the film — and the thing is, he's right. They help Lester develop his new work-out regimen.

Almost none of these characters are who they appear to be. The Burnhams evolve, spiraling in and out of happiness as the film progresses, while others are simply turned around on a single Wham Line.

Notable for being a dark, cynical, and dead-funny look at modern suburbia, possibly encouraging the later trend of arty/angsty, relatively-obscure dramas getting all the Best Picture nods. It's also notable for juggling a ton of characters, successfully, where most films top out at three or four.

This film provides examples of:

  • A-Cup Angst: Jane is looking up breast augmentation on the internet early in the movie. Subverted in that it turns out she is actually well-endowed, but her insecurity comes from the fact that one of her breasts is a little larger than the other.
  • Adopt the Dog: Lester holds back from taking the girl of his dreams, when he finds out that she's still a virgin.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Deconstructed and subverted. Lester Burnham, while going through a mid-life crisis, starts to lust after his daughter's teenage friend Angela and decides to seduce her. However, when they're actually together, she reveals that all her talk of having been with multiple boys was just bragging and she's really a virgin. Lester, who realizes how inappropriate he's been, refuses to take advantage of her.
  • All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Played straight with Lester's attraction to Angela, and subverted by Ricky's attitude towards her. Double subverted then since Jane is also a cheerleader (although not a stereotypically blonde one). She's also terrible at it.
  • AM/FM Characterization:
  • American Title: Of the ironic variety.
  • And Another Thing...: "...From now on, we're going to alternate our dinner music. Because frankly, and I don't think I'm alone here, I'm really tired of this Lawrence Welk shit."
  • Armored Closet Gay: Col. Fitts.
  • Artistic Licence – Biology: The movie has some pretty unrealistic gore effects that contradict the basics of human anatomy and phisiology. When Ricky gets hit by his father, it looks as if though his face merely squirted out some blood and then instantly healed itself, which is obviously impossible. Furthermore, when Lester gets killed, the way his blood gets splattered makes no sense – it's as if though the film crew just randomly threw some blood on the actor and on the nearby wall.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Col. Fitts not only gets away with murdering Lester, but also tearing apart both his and Lester's families.
  • Bare Your Midriff: On the poster. Oddly, the belly button in question doesn't belong to any of the movie's stars.
  • Big Bad: Col. Frank Fitts's abusive and homicidal tendencies drive most of the plot.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows:
    • Buddy Kane. DVD Commentary claims that cast and crew were occasionally mesmerized.
    • Ricky.
  • Bitch Alert: Carolyn. Her first lines to her daughter are "are you trying to look unattractive today?" and her idea of congratulating her on her routine is, "you didn't screw up once!"
  • Black Comedy: It's a movie about a man who lusts over a teenage girl, that we know dies at the end, his wife who's having an affair, his insecure daughter, and the boy next door who films her and dead animals because he finds them "interesting", who is also the man's drug dealer. It's hilarious.
  • Blunt "Yes":
    Carolyn: Jane, dear, are you trying to look unattractive today?
    Jane: Yes.
  • Boring Insult:
    Angela: Well, at least I'm not ugly.
    Ricky: ...Yes, you are. And you're boring. And you're totally ordinary. And you know it.
  • Burger Fool: Lester becomes one voluntarily and, unlike his co-workers, seems to enjoy it.
  • Camera Fiend: Angela thinks Ricky is this but he films Jane because he thinks she's interesting, and stops when she asks him to. The scene where Jane strips off for him on camera points this out as, while she is topless, Ricky is pointing the camera at her eyes because of her expression.
  • Cardboard Box of Unemployment: After Lester succeeds in blackmailing his boss and quitting his boring desk job, he leaves the office carrying a box with his belongings hoisted on his shoulder and pumping his fist triumphantly.
  • Casting Couch: Angela boasts of sleeping with a photographer to enhance her modeling career. Turns out she was lying.
  • Changing Yourself For Love: Lester falls for his daughter's schoolmate and, after overhearing her say that she would find him attractive if he were just more buff, starts working out regularly until he's in top shape to impress her.
  • Character Development: Lester's midlife crisis acts not only as a catalyst that changed Lester, but for most of the major characters in the film.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Lester's obsession over Angela is pretty squick-inducing, but when he actually has a chance to fulfill his fantasy, he stops once he realizes that for all her bravado, Angela is still a virgin.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Mrs. Fitts. When Frank kicks Ricky out and Ricky is about to leave to run away with Jane, he bids his mother goodbye. She responds, "Wear a raincoat." Which is...good advice.
  • Contemptible Cover: If you know nothing about American Beauty, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a porn flick, given the title, the "Look closer" Tagline and the prominent picture of a woman's midriff and the red rose. Then again, this was probably the designer's intention... to look closer and not judge anything by its cover.
  • Corpsing:
    • Lester and Ricky laughing when Carolyn finds them smoking weed was Kevin Spacey and Wes Bentley actually cracking up. The director just left it in.
    • The scene where Lester rattles off a list of euphemisms for masturbating had to be re-shot several times, because Kevin Spacey kept shouting out different euphemisms and Annette Benning was collapsing into hysterical giggles.
  • Creator Cameo: The producer plays the bartender at the place where Ricky works.
  • Creepy Good: Ricky films people without their knowledge, as well as dead animals (and people), and speaks in a rather quiet, low voice, with a permanent intense stare, and is a drug dealer to boot. But he's actually a good guy (notably, he stops filming as soon as Jane asks him to, and clearly means no harm), and is probably more well-adjusted than most of the cast.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Lester. "Look at me, jerking off in the shower...This will be the high point of my day; it's all downhill from here."
    • His wife also catches him in bed. "Lester, are you masturbating?!"
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lester especially, but sometimes Carolyn and Jane as well.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Pretty much everyone except Ricky is horribly insecure, and even he may not be quite right in the head.
  • Elder Employee: Lester quits his advertising job and takes up working at the local burger joint (explaining he wants "the least possible amount of responsibility"). He's easily 20+ years older than the other employees, including the managers, and has to defend his prior fast food service experience because it was decades earlier.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Angela Hayes.
  • Fanservice: Mena Suvari naked on a bed of rose petals. "Spectacular", indeed.
  • Faux Yay: Ricky sarcastically claims to be a prostitute who services other men when his father tells him that he would rather him dead than homosexual.
    Ricky: And you should see me fuck. I'm the best piece of ass in three states!
  • Fille Fatale: Subverted, if not full on Deconstructed, with Angela. The original script also called for Jane to stand trial for Lester's murder, which would be a more straight example.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: While not completely unserious, the movie begins with a somewhat lighthearted / sarcastic nature, but the film starts to develop a more serious tone later on.
  • Flower Motifs: Roses and rose petals occur throughout the film, of the variety known as Rosa 'American Beauty'.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The opening narration reveals that Lester will die in the end.
  • Gaussian Girl: Angela in Lester's fantasies about her.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: When Lester is killed.
  • Happily Married: They're not actually married, but Jim and Jim are the only couple (and characters, for that matter) in the film who are truly ordinary, happy and healthy.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Sexually Active Today?: Angela.
  • The Hedonist: Lester Burnham, as he tries to find happiness in his dull life.
  • He Knows Too Much: Col. Fitts kills Lester to keep his homosexuality a secret.
  • The Hero Dies: Lester, himself at the end.
  • Homage Shot: To Ordinary People during the dinner scene. Also, according to Word of God, the shot up Lester's legs as he's running in the last act is a Shout-Out to Marathon Man.
  • How We Got Here: The film opens with a scene towards to end of the story where Jane declares she wants to have her dad "put out of his misery". We are then shown the events leading up to this scene.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms: When Carolyn catches Lester masturbating: "Oh, all right! So shoot me, I was whacking off! That's right, I was choking the bishop, chafing the carrot, you know, saying "hi" to my monster!"
  • Hypocritical Humor: Janine says the slogan, "Smile! You're at Mister Smiley's!" without a trace of a smile on her face or enthusiasm in her voice. Ricky's mom's apology for the look of the (immaculate) house also counts.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Lester. Right after giving his wife a Head-Tiltingly Kinky kiss, to boot!
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Played with regarding Lester's attitude toward Carolyn's affair with Buddy. Lester ultimately seems rather indifferent to the affair itself, and wasn't so much happy for his wife finding happiness with someone else as he was delighted at being able to experience a bit of schadenfreude at seeing his wife, who had adopted a superior-than-thou attitude towards him and pretty much everyone throughout the movie (at least in public) being brought down a peg or two in a rather publicly humiliating fashion through being exposed as an adulteress in front of him and everyone he worked with.
    Lester: You don't get to tell me what to do ever again.
  • Idealized Sex: Averted. The sex scene between Buddy and Carolyn is hilariously awkward and over-the-top. ("Fuck me, your majesty!") The sex scene between Lester and Angela comes closer to the trope, but it ends up ending not with sex, but with Lester backing off and comforting Angela instead, after learning that she's still a virgin.
  • If You Can Read This: There's a sign in Lester's cubicle at work that simply reads "Look Closer." This was just something the set designer just felt like decorating the set with. Director Sam Mendes noticed this after seeing the footage in the editing room, and the phrase "Look Closer" would eventually become the movie's Tagline.
  • Imagine Spot: You'll never hear "Broadway" the same way again.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Ricky says Jane is interesting, as opposed to Angela who is boring and "totally ordinary", though while onscreen, Angela's character, an aspiring model, is much more day-seizing and dynamic (or at least her stories are) than Jane who mostly just complains about her parents or serves as an audience/conversation partner for Ricky.
  • In Medias Res
  • In the End, You Are on Your Own: Carolyn spouts this at one point.
  • Intimate Artistry: Ricky Fitts takes his video camera with him everywhere and views the entire world through the viewfinder. Though extremely creepy and borderline (or over the border) stalking, he is shown growing attached to and connecting with people and experiences much more deeply than any other character. He and Jane Burnham grow closer as he films her.
  • Karma Houdini: Col. Fitts after murdering Lester.
  • Knight Templar: Col. Fitts, who subjects his own son to urinalysis drug screening.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: When Jane shows Ricky her breasts, she lets her hair down first. She is also shown with her hair down when she and Ricky have their intimate scene.
  • Literally Loving Thy Neighbor: Jane and the new neighbor boy Ricky fall in love.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Lester Burnham, Carolyn Burnham, Jane Burnham, Colonel Frank Fitts, Barbara Fitts, Ricky Fitts, Angela Hayes, Buddy Kane, Jim Olmeyer, and Jim Berkley. No, none of these are just filler characters—each of them plays a crucial role in the plot, or in someone else's characterization.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Ricky Fitts. Ironically, he is probably the most normal person in the movie.
    • Also an Ironic Meaningful Name: Ricky does not fit. It's not a coincidence that the movie starts when his family moves in next door.
    • Ricky's backstory is that he had a fit (flying into a rage and attacking another kid) that landed him in a mental hospital, and his father had a fit when he though Ricky was servicing Lester.
  • Madonna–Whore Complex: Presented straight initially with Jane as the Madonna and Angela as the Whore. Subverted as the movie goes on, where Jane embraces her sexuality and it's revealed Angela is still a virgin.
  • Madden Into Misanthropy: Lester's Character Development arc goes through this and out the other side before being tragically cut short.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Ricky Fitts (see above).
    • Jane. Could be a play on Plain Jane, but as Ricky points out, she is beautiful. Opposite of Angela in that she isn't a conventional beauty.
    • Ricky = Richard = Dick. Dick and Jane.
    • While it's averted with Frank Fitts and Lester Burnham, whose first names aren't that meaningful, Angela and Carolyn could be playing with the trope, too. Angela connotes an angel, someone ethereal, while Carolyn means "womanly." Barbara (Ricky's mother's name) means "stranger." Each of the main female characters' names relates to our first impression of her character, which is later deconstructed.
    • "Lester Burnham" is an anagram of "Humbert Learns".
    • In a similar vein — Angela Hayes as in Dolores Haze, better known as "Lolita."
    • Who used to live next door to the Burnhams, eventually hiring Buddy Kane to sell the house, resulting in the Fitts moving into the neighborhood? The Lomans.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Lester by Col. Fitts, who has the hots for him, he turns him down gently.
  • Moment Killer: Lester and Carolyn start having their first romantic and intimate moment in ages...until Carolyn warns Lester not to spill beer on the couch.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: Carolyn singing in the car, pulling up to her driveway, cuts off mid-last-word-of-the-song at the sight of Lester's new Cool Car.
  • My Life Flashed Before My Eyes: Happens to Lester when he dies.
    "I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars. And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street. Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper. And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird. And Janie... and Janie... and... Carolyn."
  • Naked People Are Funny: Welcome to America's Weirdest Home Videos.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Ricky's obsession with "beauty" extends to gazing with fascinated detachment at Lester's corpse lying in a pool of blood.
  • Nipple and Dimed: It is an R-rated movie. Subverted by Thora Birch's topless scene, however, which emphasizes her vulnerability over her sexuality. More so with the other eventual nipples on display.
  • Noodle Incident: The sycamore tree that Carolyn cut down.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Col. Fitts spies on Ricky and Lester getting high, but their unfortunate placement and movements make it look like something sexual from Col Fitts' POV.
  • Object Tracking Shot: The famous "bag blowing in the wind" scene.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Played for Drama. When Col. Fitts wanders over in the rain, Lester's dialogue confirms his (mistaken) perception that Lester is, like Fitts himself, a closeted gay man. This leads to the shooting at the end.
  • Orbital Kiss: Lester and Angela kissing in the kitchen.
  • Pom-Pom Girl: Angela is of a good nature and can get people into cheers, she's self-obsessed when not on the job. Jane is affable even when she's not acting as a cheerleader but even though she's enthusiastic she's not very good at it. Carolyn mentions how dedicated she is to her routines as well.
  • Posthumous Character: Lester is shot at the end of the film, providing a Posthumous Narration.
  • Power Hair: One of Carolyn Burnham's numerous ways of "projecting an image of success at all times." Notably in flashbacks to her younger days - where Lester describes her as happy - her hair is longer.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Lester's trademark.
    • When he's working out after Carolyn's lecture: "That's. What. You. Think!"
    • During the violent dinner: "Don't Interrupt Me. Honey."
    • After his (truncated) romantic moment with his wife: "IT'S! JUST! A! COUCH!"
    • When he finds out she is cheating on him: "No, no. You. Don't get to tell me what to do. Ever. Again."
  • Red Herring: Throughout the movie we are led to believe that Carolyn (or maybe Ricky) killed him.
  • Repeat Cut: Happens whenever Lester fantasizes about Angela:
    • The moment Angela opens her top in Lester's fantasy sequence at the basketball game.
    • The moment when Angela feels up Lester in the kitchen.
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: Subverted in the opening: it's actually just a Red Herring.
  • Sexless Marriage: Lester and Carolyn. As Lester says it: "This hasn't been a marriage, for years, but you were happy as long as I kept my mouth shut. Well guess what, I've changed! And the new me whacks off when he feels horny, because you're obviously not gonna help me out in that department!"
  • Shaking Her Hair Loose: When Jane strips for Ricky, she unties her hair before taking off her bra.
  • Shameless Fanservice Girl: Angela to Lester, in his dreams.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Lester Burnham = Humbert Learns.
    • Note also that Angela's surname (Hayes) is homophonous with Lolita's surname (Haze).
    • Carolyn desperately embracing Lester's shirts is one to The Great Gatsby.
    • At the beginning of the film Carolyn mentions how the Lomans moved away when she had their tree cut down.
  • Skewed Priorities: Lester chews Carolyn out for being more concerned about beer getting spilled on the couch than having an intimate moment with him.
  • Soul-Crushing Desk Job: Lester Burnham works a boring desk job that, along with his troubled marriage, he believes is killing him. As part of his midlife crisis, he blackmails his boss, quits his job, and goes back to flipping burgers, which he finds far more satisfying.
  • Spiritual Successor: The film provided much of the inspiration for Desperate Housewives, with its Posthumous Narration and exploration of the darker side of suburbia.
    • And it is itself arguably a Spiritual Successor of such famous "middle-aged adultery" comedies as The Seven Year Itch and 10, albeit much darker than them, as well as melodramas from The '50s such as Bigger Than Life (also a film about an American patriarch who feels jaded with Conspicuous Consumption and a mid-life crisis).
    • In many ways, American Beauty is a spiritual successor to Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Both stories explore the shallowness and boredom of middle class American life through the experience of a white-collar worker who seems to be living well, but casts off his previous existence for something more rebellious but proves not to be as meaningful as he thought, and comes back enlightened and ready to make a more serious change.
    • Little Children could be considered a unofficial Spiritual Successor, as it shares the same theme of the dark root of suburbia, albeit with less Black Comedy, and also is scored by Thomas Newman.
  • Spit Take: Lester spits his beer into the kitchen sink when he hears that Angela is going to stay for the night.
  • Stalking Is Love: Played straight with Ricky, although he means no harm, and really does love Jane.
  • Stepford Smiler: On the surface, Carolyn is a successful Real Estate Agent with perfect hair, clothes, and makeup who is perfectly cheery. In reality, she strips her husband and daughter of their self-esteem while being immensely unhappy with herself for failing to reach her own expectations.
  • Stepford Suburbia
  • Straight Gay: The two Jims. Col. Fitts, a raging homophobe who is actually deeply closeted, doesn't even realize they're gay at first.
  • Suburban Gothic: Lester's marriage is unhappy, his daughter resents him, and he's trapped in a dead-end job that he hates. Also, all of his family members are planning to kill him.
  • Table Space: The Burnhams have a fairly large dinner table in their living room. The increased space conveys the estrangement between the family members when they dine together.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: Lester says as much with his sarcastic description of his own job.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Lester throwing a plate of food against the wall.
  • There Are No Therapists: Or marriage counselors, apparently.
  • This Loser Is You: Lester at first, a shabby, desperate, unhappy man with a midlife crisis.
  • Title Drop: A non-verbal example with the "American Beauty" rose being prominently featured (see Flower Motifs above).
  • Took a Level in Badass: Lester after quitting his job, begins working out... and standing up to his wife.
  • Unexpected Virgin: Angela.
  • Wham Line:
    • "This is my first time."
    • In-Universe is Lester yelling "sit down!" when Jane tries to leave the dinner table. She and Carolyn are shocked that Lester actually raised his voice.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Subverted. Carolyn hits Jane but actually stops crying and apologizing as she does so, as Jane was having none of her mother's emotional blackmail.
  • World of Symbolism: The first shot of Lester at work he's reflected on a computer monitor. The text looks like jail bars. That's just ONE example. The film is ripe for Media classes.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Both Jane and Ricky get hit by their parents in the same scene with the other watching. Carolyn slaps Jane in a moment of rage while Colonel Fitts barges into Ricky's room to hit him for opening his private cabinet.
  • You Are What You Hate: Col. Fitts, Angela.


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