American Beauty, 15 years on

We watched American Beauty again. I couldn’t take it this time. It felt cynical – everything was smooth – the acting, the direction, everything. But I kept wondering: What is it saying?

There’s the old man with a mid-life crisis story (quit your “soul-destroying” job, tell your dickhead boss what you really think of him, and buy a car you always dreamed of – a 1970 Pontiac Firebird in this case).

And there’s the feel-good twist on this: maybe throwing your life into chaos (reconnecting with your twenty-one year old self and perving on your daughter’s friend) is a liberating thing (“today can be the first day of the rest of your life”).

You have the well-worn ideas that form the backdrop to this: Suburbia is stifling – lives of quiet desperation – the American dream might be hollow on the inside – most people don’t live, they merely exist – and so on.

And then there’s the beauty stuff. The famous plastic bag scene. “I need to remember…Sometimes there’s so much…beauty in the world. I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

What I’d like to know is, can you still take this? I swallowed it when I was 17. The line is delivered perfectly, and it’s backed by that Thomas Newman piano – the same kind of Brooks Was Here piece that he used in the Shawshank. I love that piano. I wonder how many “meaningful” lines in movies couldn’t be delivered to that backing music.

But the message – “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world” – it seems like no one believes that but everyone likes to be seduced by it, from time to time.

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