American Fantasy

American Beauty

When I first saw American Beauty, I missed the short prologue. We walked in as Lester Burnham was beginning his voice-over during the helicopter shot of his neighborhood.

I liked the movie, but not for the reasons other people praised it. Most seized upon the film as an indictment of suburbia. Those who disliked it, on the other hand, found Alan Ball’s script obvious and trite, and thought director Sam Mendes gave the movie an air of profundity and “art” that made it even worse.

I agree with the critics, but only to a point. If the narrative is taken straight — as a story about a middle-aged man who finds a certain measure of salvation and happiness by breaking numerous social conventions — it is silly and dumb and ponderous.

But I think (and I use the first person because I seem alone here) that American Beauty is something completely other. Put another way, I think the conventional interpretation is wrong, and lauding or damning the movie based on it is a major mistake.

When I finally did see the prologue, my initial interpretation was confirmed. Except for the prologue, American Beauty is a movie within a movie. The movie that was released in theaters was financed by Dreamworks. The film within that movie was composed by Ricky in his head.

The frame is the prologue, a brief bit of videotape shot by Ricky. Jane laments that her father is a libidinous loser. “Someone should really just put him out of his misery,” she says. “Want me to kill him for you?” Ricky replies. Long pause. “Yeah.”

The narrative is Ricky’s fantasy. He kills Lester the only way he can — through film. Yet he saves Lester, too, liberating him from his job, giving him a small measure of self-respect, and finding in him a small trace of selflessness. That he finally offs him (through the character of his father) can be seen as a mercy killing, because Lester’s unsustainable epiphanies and satisfactions would surely give way to more misery. Lester dies happy.

Ricky accomplishes other goals. He gets to run away, something he clearly wouldn’t do in real life. He frees Jane. He awakens Carolyn’s sexuality. He breaks his father. He simultaneously destroys the cheerleader’s façade and shows her (through Lester) a small measure of grace and kindness.

This is his fantasy, his only way of gaining control of his life and the lives of the people around him. He gets to play God, while in reality he is meek, introverted to the point of ostracization, and paralyzed. (In Lester one sees what Ricky fears for his future. Whether he realizes it or not, though, he suffers from many of the same problems as his protagonist, and he is unhappy in exactly the same way.)

All the flaws pointed out by people who dislike American Beauty become forgivable or even necessary in this interpretation — the overacting, the lack of subtlety throughout, the leering, the weakness and fatigue of the satire.

This is exactly the kind of film a gifted teenager would make.

Faint praise? Perhaps. But it makes American Beauty a hell of a lot more compelling.

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