It’s been exactly 15 years since American Beauty was released in theaters, and I’ve yet to see a movie since that has effectively encapsulated the claustrophobic realities of comfortable living. From a plastic bag blowing around to the pervasive presence of rosebuds, there’s a lot more going on under the film’s pessimistic skin.
What’s also made the movie so influential and scholarly debated is its resonance today. Suburban America hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years. Plenty has happened in the outside world, but the people who live within the confines of this microcosm still struggle with the same problems when it comes to marriage and parenting.
As a product of suburban life, I’ve seen the absolute worst aspects of it. Here are some of those indomitable aspects that have yet to change since Sam Mendes and Alan Ball crashed the 2000 Oscars with this masterpiece:
Everything Is For Show
One of the opening scenes shows Lester’s wife Carolyn manicuring roses in their front yard. While she’s doing this, Lester cynically narrates, “See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident.”
This ostentatious phoniness surrounds us in all shapes and sizes. We see it in the next-door neighbor’s brand-new Porsche that sits in their driveway for months without moving. We see it in the family of seven that isn’t very religious but goes to the most crowded mass every week to prove otherwise. We see it in Christmas cards, birthday parties, little league games, and a million other places.
Carolyn herself even says multiple times throughout the movie, “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.” We are living only so we can show others that they aren’t living like we are, which somewhat leads into my next item…
Life Is One Giant Asshole Race To Be Unique
A massive theme throughout the movie is how horrible it is to be normal. Being normal means being nothing at all, which is why Angela lies about her rampant sexcapades and repeatedly says there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. We MUST be different, but not just different, the MOST different.
All we have to do is drive down a nice street to witness a veritable feast of neighbors trying to outdo one another. My Christmas decorations are the most extravagant and obnoxious! My garden has the most unpronounceable ferns and bushes! My front porch flag is the most aerodynamic and shows my daughter’s $40,000 education, which is better than yours!
It’s an endless passive-aggressive war shrouded in smiles and casual conversations. The passive aggression doesn’t end there, though.
Kids Are Passive-Aggressive With Parents, And Vice Versa
Think about a typical dinner with your immediate family. Each member has a different goal in mind every time they sit down at the table. Kids just want to eat, comfortably share silence, and get the hell out of there without being drilled with 20 questions by their parents. Parents, obviously, want to ask these questions and learn about their kids’ days without pissing them off, but this is inevitably impossible and usually ends in bitterness.
What ultimately happens is that the room fills up with everything they’re not saying to each other. We may all be miserable and secretly want to open up about it, but we don’t want to be the ones to make the first move. The shit gnawing at our internal organs is buried deep down until we can’t take it anymore, and that’s really the best we can do. Speaking of dinner…
The Constant Feeling That All Is Lost
Early on, there’s a dinner scene where Jane abruptly leaves the table after explaining to Lester that he’s barely spoken to her for months. He follows her, apologizing for not being more attentive and wondering why they’re not close anymore. After she resentfully leaves, he gazes at an old picture of his family and yearns for how things used to be.
It’s obviously natural to want the past. We all want to be younger because we associate that with happiness, even if our youth wasn’t necessarily blissful when it happened. Kids want be younger because growing up sucks, and parents want to be younger because they want their kids back.
We all eventually realize that the future doesn’t really have anything to offer us. Everything we want was lost a long time ago when we didn’t appreciate it.
Wives Still Control Everything
I hate Carolyn, and I hate Annette Bening. I hate Annette Bening because she plays the bitchy status-obsessed Carolyn so damn well. I wonder how she feels about being typecast as the worst person on the planet in every movie she’s in, but she’s probably laughing all the way to the Academy anyway.
The man is the head and the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants. Yes, that’s a quote from another movie I’m too ashamed to name here, but it couldn’t apply more perfectly to suburban America. Every cookie-cutter house has a wife who brainwashed her husband into thinking his dreams are irrelevant and that his real dreams are to make her dreams come true.
It’s like a fucked-up, oppressed version of Inception.