Deep Focus:  “American Beauty”

Story posted February 14, 2021 in Arts & Entertainment by Paul Martin.

In an effort to expose a larger population of readers to “classic” films, CommRadio’s Arts & Entertainment Department is providing a weekly retrospective of notable motion pictures. These movies are selected individually for their cultural and cinematic achievements. For this submission to the Deep Focus catalogue, our department has chosen Sam Mendes’ 1999 film “American Beauty.”

The 1990’s were a decade that saw an extended period of relative normalcy in America. With the collapse of the Soviet Union occurring at the beginning of the decade and 9/11 waiting just around the corner, the United States experienced a booming economy and a lack of military conflict for a large portion of the final decade of the 20th century.

1999 was an interesting year in film that saw all this stability translated to the big screen. As the 90’s came to a close, the uncertainty of the 21st century began to creep in, and with that came a slew of office films that expressed a growing disdain for the mundane and repetitive work that comes with working in a cubicle.

Notable films that touched on this subject range from the testosterone fueled “Fight Club” to the more satirical yet bleak “Office Space.” What these movies showed were mostly middle aged white men tired of doing unimportant work finding purpose, albeit enjoyment, in their lives again.

“American Beauty” was a film that also followed this basic outline. The viewer watches Lester Burnham, an advertising executive who experiences an awakening at the hand of his daughter’s friend and a new neighbor. Despite the relative creepy plotline, complicated more by the fact that the main character is played by real life predator Kevin Spacey, “American Beauty” is a remarkable film that touches on themes such as conformity and love and asks the viewer “what is it we find beautiful?”

Throughout the film, we are introduced to a parade of characters living in suburban hell. While all these characters have flaws deep inside them, they mask them over with conformity and appearance. The most glaring example of this in the movie is Lester’s wife Carolyn. Played fantastically by Annette Bening, Carolyn is an immensely flawed character who prefers upholding an appearance of success over personal enjoyment. This is evident in a scene where Lester and Carolyn look like they are about to rekindle their romance which has been dead for quite some time, until Carolyn warns Lester not to spill beer on their couch.

The opposite to Carolyn in the movie would have to be Ricky, the new next door neighbor who films everything he views beautiful. Acting as the agent of change in the movie, Ricky is not one to fall for appearance. He understands the facade people put up to mask their unhappiness and strives to find the authenticity in people. This is what attracts him to Jane, Lester and Carolyn’s daughter.

Throughout the film, we see certain characters looking for validity in the form of others' opinions. The garden Carolyn tends to is littered with red roses, to keep up the illusion of beauty in the house. Jane looks at the possibility of getting a boob job to appear more beautiful to her peers.

As the movie progresses, Lester is the embodiment of the freedom that comes from removing yourself from the expectations of others. We find Lester happier working at a fast food place than his bleak, jail-like office space. After a long time living the life others expect him to, he finally finds more inner peace as he lives for himself.

“American Beauty” would end up being the biggest winner at the 2000 Oscars, taking home five wins, including Best Picture. The massive critical appraisal the film experienced immediately after its release would soon wane, and is often included on lists of overrated films.

However, “American Beauty” best functions as a capsule for a time that has already passed. The reason this movie and many others like it experienced so much success at the time of their release was because they came at a time when the country started becoming burned out on consumerism and appearance. As the main characters in these films experience a rebirth, we see that with it comes a loss of stability in favor of excitement, which in one way or another would foreshadow the uncertainty that came with the 2000’s.

While some parts of the film come off as corny, especially the scene with Ricky discussing what beauty means to him, “American Beauty” is a remarkable character study that should be celebrated for analyzing what exactly we as humans desire. Some people seek validation and appearance. Others look for beauty.

Paul Martin is a junior majoring in telecommunications and media studies. To contact him, email at

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