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Looking Closer at "American Beauty"

May 9, 2009 | by

"American Beauty" is the big winner at this year's Oscars. What is the real beauty that is the subject of this enigmatic film?

"American Beauty" is more than a biting satire on suburban life. This somewhat contrived story is meant to be an allegory. Alan Ball's richly textured screenplay -- which presents a cast of peculiar, almost cartoon-like characters -- feels more like an assemblage of metaphors than a tale of real-life people we can personally relate to.

"Look closer," the film's tag-line tells us. Look closer at the beautiful things we yearn for and spend our life chasing. The characters in "American Beauty" are yearning to fulfill a dream that they think will somehow get them out of their miserable life:

  • For Lester Burnham, it is an overwhelming passion for a young girl.

  • For his wife, Carolyn, it is becoming the most successful real estate agent in her town.
  • For their teenaged daughter Jane, it is changing her physical appearance.
  • For their neighbor, Colonel Frank Fitts, it is the semblance of a happy, normal domestic all-American life.

By the end of the film, most of the characters get a taste of their dreams and discover the underlying emptiness of their lives. Looking closer, they see the decay that has replaced genuine beauty and meaning. Their dreams are nothing but illusions.

Angela, the object of Lester's fierce obsession, turns out to be nothing like what she appears to be. Carolyn gets a taste of what it means to be at the top of the real estate industry when she hooks up with Buddy Kane, "the King of Real Estate." He has mastered the veneer of success and dumps her as soon as her looming divorce becomes a possible
blot to his image.

For Ricky, the mysterious boy next door, garbage is beauty.

It is Ricky, the mysterious boy next door, who literally shows us a close-up picture of "beauty" captured on film –- a discarded plastic bag dancing in the wind. For him, garbage is beauty. After all, Ricky can find beauty in just about anything -- his first reaction upon discovering Lester Burnham shot dead is to watch with passionless fascination the blood slowly ooze from the fresh wound in his head. His version of American Beauty is completely disconnected from the reality of the people and real life that surround him.

For Ricky's father, Frank, life comes crashing down when his latent homosexuality (that he so loathed to acknowledge) bursts forth in a moment of fateful self-revelation. It's a moment that he is desperate to erase with violent consequences.

It is easy to take this film for yet another Hollywood tale about the emptiness and meaninglessness of life stripped from all illusion and pretense. At least that's what I thought until the very last moment of the film when Lester's life literally flashes before his very eyes as we hear his voice speaking from the life beyond. It's a moment that one film critic called, "a grievous, laughable filmmaking mistake." I think it is the film's most compelling scene.

We hear the dead Lester reflecting back on the few precious moments that made his failed "stupid life" worth it. And we see quick flashbacks of the wife whom he grew to despise -- young, laughing, fully alive and radiant spinning on a merry-go-round. We see his distant, gloomy daughter who has grown to hate him as a happy 4-year-old, dressed up as a little angel surrounded by her adoring parents. The moments of authentic relationship and goodness comprise genuine American beauty that redeem a wasted life, and that make the consequences of losing one's way so real and tragic. Instead of building upon what they had, Lester and his wife lose themselves and trash the beauty that could have been theirs.

Rabbi Pesach Krohn retells a parable created by the venerable sage, the Chafetz Chaim in his book "The Maggid Speaks." It succinctly illustrates how easy it is to forget and, like Lester, take a wrong turn.

A penniless Jew named Yaakov decided he would take the long, risky voyage to a far-away island near Africa that was rumored to have so many diamonds that they lay scattered in the streets. Even though the trip would take a year on the sea, the thought of returning home with tremendous wealth made the undertaking worthwhile.

Yaakov wished his family farewell, and after a year he finally reached the island. As he got off the boat he saw that the rumor was true. Diamonds were lying around everywhere! He dropped his bags and quickly began to gather whatever he could get his hands on, stuffing them into his pocket.

The people who saw him laughed at him. "What's your rush? The boat is not returning here for a whole year!"

Yaakov though to himself, "Hey, they're right. Besides there's so many diamonds here - there's enough for everyone."

He asked his neighbor, "If diamonds aren't important here, tell me -- what is?"

The next day he began to pick up diamonds and noticed that no one else was doing it. In fact, they laughed at him, and he began to feel like a fool. He asked his neighbor, "If diamonds aren't important here, tell me -- what is?"

"Fats, my friend. That's where it's at. Oil, shortening -- anything that can be used for baking and frying. It's so hard to get that stuff here, anyone who can produce it is bound to become rich."

Yaakov immediately began to work hard at producing and selling fats. He became so immersed that he eventually forgot why he had come to the island in the first place. He would ignore the diamonds in the street like everyone else, and over time amassed a great supply of fats, receiving a lot of honor from the islanders.

Months passed and news came to the island that the boat was coming to pick up all the foreigners in two weeks. Yaakov was too caught up in producing fats to refocus his thoughts. "What a successful year! Time to pack up my fats and take them home!"

As he was boarding the boat, he suddenly remembered that the whole reason for coming to the islands was for diamonds, not fats! It was too late now, and as he scooped up a few diamonds, he figured that all the fats and oils would make him rich at home.

After a few weeks on the boat, all the oil began to rot and stink up the entire ship. There was no choice but to throw it all overboard. Yaakov realized he totally blew it and was dreading the disappointment of his wife and children.

The ship finally docked, and Yaakov, feeling embarrassed and ashamed, went to his room alone and cried himself to sleep. His wife figured he was exhausted from the journey and decided not to disturb him. She picked up his coat and discovered two large diamonds in the pocket. With great excitement she showed them to the jewel dealer who told her, "Lady -- you are rich!! These diamonds are worth a fortune that will last you for many years to come!"

The wife ran back to her husband. "Yaakov, you did it! We're so lucky! You're so smart!"

"Oy!" Yaakov groaned, "if only I kept focused on what was really important! It's true we got a few diamonds, and that's wonderful, but I could have amassed a fortune that would have lasted us a lifetime!"

"American Beauty" reminds us that yes, there is real beauty and meaning available in life that makes it all worthwhile. What a tragic shame it is to lose sight of the diamonds and be left holding the empty plastic bag.

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