Film critic Matt Saber ponders the deeper meaning behind the Academy Award-winning American Beauty, a Sam Mendes joint.
By Matt Saber
At some point, most of us will realize that the world is disappointing and awful. (There are some that circumvent this epiphany with religion, but Honeysuckle is a New York-based publication, and God abandoned this city a long time ago.) How we cope with this realization shapes us into who we are and what we do as we struggle to find something beautiful to hold onto. The 1999 film American Beauty highlights a number of these coping mechanisms, ultimately revealing that the secret to pursuing beauty in this world is to either be an obnoxious piece of shit, or to manipulate your perception by getting really fucking high.
Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) is introduced as a woman whose pruning shears match her gardening clogs. If that’s not enough to make you hate her already, she’s also a status-obsessed real estate agent who spews motivational catch phrases and equates career success with personal success. She attempts happiness by projecting happiness, believing if everyone around her views her as successful, she will inherently become so. If she were a real person alive today, she’d likely be on Facebook right now, posting motivational speeches and trying to get you involved in a multi-level marketing scheme.
While prolonged happiness is achievable through Carolyn’s approach—as evidenced by her successful mentor and illicit lover, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher)—Carolyn never achieves it herself. Idealizing success as happiness requires one to achieve success. Carolyn is never ultimately successful, and her only real brush with joy in the film is when she is firing a handgun. Since gunplay is basically the Republican equivalent of smoking weed, maybe she should have tried her husband’s approach to pursuing happiness.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) hates his job, his wife, and is generally at odds with every aspect of his life. Then he starts smoking pot, and everything changes. Marijuana allows Lester to see that trying to achieve the goals that most people value is a ridiculous pursuit, and that the only things that truly matter are avoiding responsibility and sleeping with younger women. Lester quits his job and begins spending his time smoking weed, listening to Pink Floyd, and working out in an attempt to look good naked. He buys the car he has always wanted and gets a job in a fast food restaurant, reveling in the idea that the job comes with almost no responsibility. For the first time in a long time, Lester is truly happy, and it’s all thanks to one simple plant.
Lester is introduced to marijuana by his new neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Ricky is a teenage, drug-dealing Buddha figure who compensates for his overbearing father by smoking a lot of weed and videotaping various things. No matter how bad things get at home, Ricky still finds beauty in the world. He has smoked so much marijuana that he finds dead birds beautiful, and a floating plastic bag may just drive him to tears. He has a calm, knowing demeanor and an unwavering confidence boosted by daily doses of THC. Ricky finds joy in almost everything, and if you’d just inhale the copious amounts of pot he does, so could you.
The message of American Beauty is clear. Certainly, you can grind through life in pursuit of empty goals and success, but when that inevitably fails, it is much better to reject all responsibility, light up a few joints, and embrace life again. Beauty and joy are all around us, you just have to look for it through the appropriate hazy filter.
Matt Saber lives a quiet life in suburban Michigan and dreams of one day developing a passion for something other than sarcasm.