I had heard the name “American Beauty” dropped many times before I ended up seeing Sam Mendes’s 1999 movie. Despite the name being so familiar, I had few expectations going in and didn’t really know what it was about. This is really the way I prefer to go into movies as it allows the movie to speak for itself and for me to make my own judgment. That being said, I really hope that anyone interested in seeing this movie will watch it before reading the rest of this though I will not spoil any of the plot. Going into movies like this challenges movies to inspire interest in its viewers on its own and American Beauty certainly does that.
American Beauty does not have a fantastic setting, heroes, villains, or anything out of the ordinary. It may sound like this sets it up to be boring but it ends up being central to the movie’s appeal. American Beauty has a stark realism to it. The result of this is that everything in the movie becomes a little too relatable. What do I mean by too relatable? Well, nearly every character is highly flawed while simultaneously being like us or someone we know. While we get to see their flaws, in real life these are the sort of flaws we desperately try to keep secret, often even refusing to personally reflect on them. The result is that American Beauty is slightly uncomfortable to watch.
This may not sound like an endorsement but in this case it’s a huge compliment. Much of the best art addresses ideas that make us uncomfortable. While this art is often controversial (and justifiably so), it ultimately is very important that this art exists. Homophobes may be uncomfortable by Mapplethorpe’s work and the very religious may cringe at the “Piss Christ”, but some things are both important to say and unpleasant to hear.
American Beauty quite brilliantly shows how without drive and passion, life can become monotonous. The plot revolves around a family of three and their suburban life. The father despises his job as a magazine writer. The mother is an ambitious real estate broker who tends to fall short of her goals. The daughter is an awkward teenager who is unhappy with her family life. All of the characters begin unsatisfied with their lives despite having made no huge mistake. They’re all just people who have found themselves stuck in rut. Their unhappiness reaches a boiling point and each of them begin to make big changes to their lives. Without giving too much away, their flaws become obvious and they make many big mistakes. However, by the end of the movie, all the characters are forgivable, or at least understandable.
American Beauty is a very special movie. Not much else is like it and while I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, I think anyone will find it interesting and worth a viewing. It has an offbeat plot and tells a story that doesn’t fit the classic Hollywood mold. It’s really hard to say what the movie is about. The movie is an artistic statement about beauty in the world, a call to do more in your life, or even a middle finger to the man. Being one of those few films that feels truly unique, beautiful and provocative, all while being entertaining to watch, American Beauty is one of the few movies I would rate a perfect 100/100. Well done Mr. Mendes.