Sedation in Suburbia: What’s American Beauty All About? (Spoilers Ahead)

Everything that was meant to happen does, eventually.’ – Angela Hayes, portrayed by Mena Süvari, in 1999’s American Beauty.

‘Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right, I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.’ – Lester Burnham, depicted by Kevin Spacey, in 1999’s American Beauty.

(After selling drugs – and showing his video equipment – to Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham from his bedroom dresser and hence setting up later scenes in the movie) ‘My dad thinks I paid for all this with catering jobs. Never underestimate the power of denial.‘ – Ricky Fitts, played by Wes Bentley, in 1999’s American Beauty.

The really curious thing about director Sam Mendes’ 1999 Best Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay and Cinematography-winning film American Beauty is how much it just isn’t the story of Kevin Spacey’s self-admittedly sedated magazine writer Lester Burnham as it is the entire supporting cast’s – including Annette Bening’s Caroline, Thora Birch’s Jane, Mena Süvari’s Angela, Wes Bentley’s Ricky, and Chris Cooper’s Colonel Fitts – also.

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Director Sam Mendes (NoFilmSchool.com Photo)

Getting right into it, and thinking ahead to director Mendes’ later filmography, the film follows protagonists who are stuck or lost in life, or in Lester’s case: sedated. In any case, much like some of the director’s later filmography, there is a case of ‘get(ting) it back‘, although in American Beauty‘s case – much like 2002’s Road to Perdition and 2012’s Skyfall, the more I think about it – the character most affected by the crisis dies by the film’s end. Moreover, the gradual camera draw-in with the table – coffee tables included – scenes is reminiscent of 2015’s Spectre. 

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American Beauty screenwriter, Alan Ball (NoFilmSchool.com Photo)

The screenplay by Alan Ball (known for TV’s True Blood and his self-directed feature film, Towelhead) is clever in that there’s a feeling that everyone’s internal crisis, realisation thereof, and solution to – or relapse  – cascades from one character to the next to the point that you’d think certain characters, such as Angela, exist only to accelerate everyone else’s realisation that they need to escape who they are at that point in time.

The way this works – coupled with some intriguing foreshadowing where Ricky’s drug-dealing background is the basis for his solution to life’s problems, Lester’s teenage summer job of burger-flipping is the basis of his comeuppance with Caroline, and Caroline’s gun licence sort-of culminates in the film’s gratefully-obscured climax – is that while Lester speaks of his sedation, Angela talks about how there’s nothing worse than being ordinary and triggers Lester’s escape from his moribund existence and job into a happier lifestyle. This, in turn, makes Caroline regret her professional life and, in time, Jane, Ricky and Colonel Fitts have similar realisations and escapes from – and in the Colonel’s case, violent relapses to – what they used to be. However, in keeping with Angela’s reintroduction towards the end of the film and her offhand remark – ‘everything that was meant to happen does, eventually’ – Lester is returned to his sedation, albeit permanently.

Please forgive, in advance, any subtext that I may have missed.

The best way, at present, that I can convey this is to think of how the series of villains were introduced and disposed of in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: cascading-ly.

There’s also a heavy dose of almost plastic-esque cynicism – both publicly and privately shed – in American Beauty but that’s best left for acting and cinematography sections.

The cast of the film "American Beauty" (From L-R:)
The cast of American Beauty (From L-R:) Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Thora Birch, Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey hold the awards they won for best ensemble cast for a motion picture during the 6th Annual Screen Actor’s Guild Awards in Los Angeles. (Lucy NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images Photo and Caption)

The cast – especially the ensemble of Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Wes Bentley, Mena Süvari, Thora Birch, and Chris Cooper – work as a subtle ensemble all united in, and working against, their own status quo. How this feeling of sedated-ness mixed with private/public cynicism generally exists in all of them and is shed or reinforced as the film goes on. Kevin Spacey’s delightfully sarcastic-meets-cynical plastic mien and ability to convey emotion and near-deadpan delivery of dialogue is quite something.

John Cho of Star Trek and Harold & Kumar fame is also in there somewhere.

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Composer Thomas Newman is seen at a recording session for Disney’s 2013 film, Saving Mr Banks (DisneyExaminer.com Photo)

The really curious thing about the score is, that barring much in the way of ethnic diversity in the ensemble or peripheral supporting cast, the music is surprisingly Eastern-influenced in a way that complements the film while being diametrically opposite to it. In a film that’s known for its Mr Happys, Mr Smileys and generally superficial (at first) sense of happiness, the score either intensifies that cynicism or is genuinely against it for contrast’s sake, I’m not quite sure.

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Sam Mendes and cinematographer, Conrad L Hall (left), on location for Road to Perdition (YouTube.com Screenshot)

Which brings me to what I really wanted to talk about, in conjunction with Naomi Shohan’s production design: the cinematography by the late Conrad L Hall. The mix of the intuitively put-together shots (as in Lester’s office where everything seems so assembled); the misty dream-esque photography of the Burnhams’ lawn and later suburban happiness, which may leave you half-convinced that the entire film is a dream or flashback sequence (which Lester’s narration may well have set up); and the shadow-heavy cinematography that occurs in nearly dark sequences that often verges on a supernatural feeling with its use of shadows and darkness.

That said, the production design makes heavy use of a spectral, middle class-y white everywhere, mixed with occasional bursts of red; the latter is arguably the film’s main colour.

Much like Lester’s admission that ‘it’s a great thing to know you still have the ability to surprise yourself‘, it’s a welcome surprise that American Beauty is more of an ensemble piece with almost everyone – barring Angela the harbinger of, ‘everything that was meant to happen does, eventually.’ – doing something throughout the film: that general filtering down and baton-passing of escaping the status quo from cast member to cast member amidst a changing but spectral aesthetic that echoes the retrospective narration of its chief protagonist.

(the above article uses the author’s own observations and opinions but the following sources were used to fact-check cast and film information: IMDb.com, NoFilmSchool.com)

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