American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes Essay Sample
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American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, exploits the overwhelming misconception of beauty, and of how to achieve happiness. The tag line, “look closer”, prompts viewers to look deeper into the characters and thus into themselves; something that society should also be prompted to do. The characters in American Beauty are not what they appear, and throughout the course of the movie, reality hits and many realize the life they have
they have been living is somewhat unsatisfactory. Through the use of narration and other techniques, Mendes illustrates how truly blind people can be, and how some luckily learn to see. Lester Burnham, the main character in the movie, is a middle aged man who has come to realize how unhappy he is with the life he is living. His wife is nothing but an inconvenience to him and his daughter has nothing but pure hatred for a man she claims does nothing but embarrass her. Lester’s first appearance in the movie is through narration; “In less than a year, I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, but in a way, I am dead already”. Lester goes on to say, “Look at me, jerking off in the shower, this will be the high point of my day; it’s all downhill from here”.
This makes it clear that Lester is aware of how pitiful his existence has come to be, but even so, he initially refuses to do anything about it. However, after encounters with his teenage neighbor, Ricky, Lester comes to the realization that only by taking matters into his own hands can he one day look back and feel nostalgic instead of complete regret. “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for 20 years, and I’m just now waking up” is what Lester told Ricky after realizing this. Lester continues to grow as the movie goes on, and comes to find that just simply realizing that his life isn’t close to what he ever wanted it to be, makes him happier than he has been in a long time. This is apparent at the end of the movie, when Lester narrates over the scene of his death. “It’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst..and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then if flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…”
Lester Burnham died happy, literally with a smile on his face. This is because, despite the bumpy road, Lester finally managed to find the beauty in his life. “Look closer” is what the tagline reads on the front of this movie, and that’s exactly what Lester did; looked closer into those around him, and also into himself. Carolyn Burnham, Lester’s wife, spends all of her time and energy at work, striving to be the number one real estate agent. In the movie, when preparing to show a house to potential buyers, Carolyn tells herself repeatedly “I will sell this house today, I will sell this house today”. When she is unable to sell the house, she begins to cry, but immediately slaps herself for doing so. She could, in all honestly, care less about her personal life; her job is the first, and one of her only priorities. Even when she’s cheating on her husband with a colleague, she does it with someone she knows can help her advance in her career. Angela, another character in this movie, is a high school cheerleader, and a beautiful one at that.
She thinks of nothing but her looks and her hookups, and strives to appear mature and desirable to men that are, for the most part, older than her. When talking to Jane, Lester’s daughter, Angela says “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”. Despite the fact Angela encourages Lester’s inappropriate fantasies about her, the confidence she has is simply an act; Angela admits to Lester that she’s scared she’s too ordinary and that “nothing is worse than being too ordinary”. Angela realizes this when Lester finally puts an end to their somewhat sexual relationship, and at the end of the movie, finally talks to Lester like she’s the child she really is. Ricky Fitts is probably the most pivotal character in the movie. Although he deals drugs, likes to videotape dead things, and decides to run away from home, Ricky is surprisingly the only level-headed character in this movie. Angela, along with many others, nail him as the ‘pothead’ stereotype; lazy, dumb, setting themselves up for failure.
However, Lester realizes soon after meeting him (just as his daughter did), that Ricky is anything but a failure. After getting caught smoking weed outside of his work, Ricky quits right on the spot. After hearing how spontaneous and almost defiant Ricky was Lester says, “I think you just became my personal hero”. Ricky’s character is supposed to be unique; he’s the one character that you can be sure knows what beauty is, and knows how to capture it. In the famous scene of Ricky taping a plastic bag flying around a brick building, he explains his reasons for taping it.. ‘..and that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excusxe, but it helps me remember… and I need to remember. Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in”
This shows that Ricky doesn’t think filming is necessarily true beauty, or that a plastic bag is either; Ricky realizes that beauty is, as the famous quote goes, “in the eye of the beholder”. Sometimes you capture things on film in order to capture a feeling you had at that particular moment in time. Ricky didn’t tape a dead bird to be purposefully morbid, but because he felt something when he saw that bird, because he felt something he wanted to be able to remember. Ricky Fitts knows from the first time we are introduced to him to “look closer”. When talking to Angela he says (referring to Jane), “She’s not your friend, she’s someone you use to feel better about yourself”. Ricky is clearly aware of the insecurities and unhappiness surrounding him. Colonel Frank Fitts, Ricky’s dad, is a strict, old-fashioned marine. He cringes at words like “gay” or “fag” because he claims to be a complete homophobic. When Frank Fitts confronts Ricky about his suspicions of Ricky being homosexual, the fight turns ugly.
Not only is Ricky almost immediately punched, but the fight is ended with Colonel Fitts yelling “..get out! I don’t even want to see you again!”. However, soon after this scene in the movie, Fitts goes down to discuss the matter with Lester. When things Lester says get interpreted the wrong way by Fitts, and the Colonel believes Lester is actually gay, he kisses Lester. After realizing he misunderstood the situation, Frank Fitts goes back to his house, only to return later that night and kill Lester Burnham. It’s such a sad thing to see someone be so ashamed of something, that they are willing to kill in order to keep it a secret. Only by looking closer at his own life, and his own insecurities could Frank Fitts figure out how much this burning secret was killing him. Frank Fitts did not find the beauty in this movie either, not that we saw anyways. He was so worried about his useless reputation, instead of about what would actually make him happy, what would actually make him smile.
American Beauty is a movie promoting the idea of originality, the idea of “looking closer” at everything in life. No longer judge a book by its cover, no longer settle for less than spectacular; instead, look past appearances, and do what makes you truly happy. Luckily, Lester Burnham died only after finding that happiness everyone desires. Some of the characters, however, were not so fortunate by the time the movie ended; this is somewhat representative of society today. Completely blinded by the moronic idea that what others think is more important than your own opinion, many get lost, get caught up in trying to appear something they aren’t. In the film, Mendes publicizes these ideas through making his characters have somewhat of a façade, an almost double life. The tagline of the movie, “look closer”, tells us to try and look past these façades, past the surface, and to try and find pure beauty underneath it all.
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