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American Beauty, American Dysfunction


By Elaine Cassel

Once again, Sigmund Freud’s presence permeates a popular movie. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, actor, actress, and screenplay, American Beauty depicts modern day dysfunction as arising from hidden forces simmering beneath the surface of civility. Disenchanted and dissatisfied Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) loses his job and embarks on a stereotypical middle-aged male mid-life crisis that includes buying a red sports car and dreaming of younger women. He lusts after his daughter Jane's (Thora Birch) best friend, the leggy, blond Angela (Mena Suvari). Angela, the virgin whose talk is filled with false reports of sexual exploits, lusts after Lester as well (or so she says), and makes no attempt to hide the fact that she loves the father image in him. When Lester gets his opportunity to take advantage of Angela’s infatuation, he can’t carry it off. He realizes that she is not the experienced woman she has made herself out to be and she reminds him of his daughter.

The term most often used in reviews to describe Lester's wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) is "neurotic," the Freudian term associated with anxiety-related syndromes. Why is Carolyn neurotic? She sublimates her nurturing instincts in her prize roses because there is no love at home. Lester and Jane have nothing but contempt for her, though Lester has no problem with Carolyn being the main breadwinner in the family. Stung by rejection and overwhelmed with trying to sell real estate in a market dominated by male competitor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), Carolyn tries to get a piece of the action by seducing Kane. Problem is, Lester finds out about their noontime trysts when they stop for a burger at the fast-foot restaurant where Lester has taken a job.

The Burnam’s next-door-neighbors are Col. and Mrs. Fitts (Chris Cooper and Allison Janney), and their odd son, Ricky (Wes Bentley). Col. Fitts is a paranoid homophobe. Fitts has impressed upon Ricky the need to be macho above all else. But Ricky gets his kicks dealing drugs in secret and practicing voyeurism—he keeps an eye on Jane by way of a video camera in his bedroom. Dad is doing some watching of his own. When Ricky delivers drugs to Lester, Col. Fitts watches through a window and thinks he sees Lester and Ricky engaging in homosexual sex—a case of classic Freudian projection. Fitts charges over to what we mistakenly think is to be an attack on Lester for corrupting his son. Not quite. Fitts’ expressed homophobia masks repressed homoeroticism, which Freud believed to be the origin of the male fear and loathing of homosexuals.

We wonder for a time who is going to do Lester in. Carolyn, whom Lester has just caught cheating? Ricky, who promised Jane that he would kill her father as she asked? Or Fitts, who has divulged to Lester his lust for men? We quickly rule out Ricky, with whom Jane has taken off to live a "better" life, thanks to Ricky’s drug connections that he assures her will net them a comfortable income. So does Carolyn get there first or is it Fitts who pulls the trigger? We won’t disclose that—you have to see the movie.

Lester assures us (from the great hereafter) that if we can’t yet relate to the tragedy that befell his family, someday we will. That we are destined to be overcome by inherent self-destructive tendencies is pure Freudian biological determinism. Fortunately, our choices are not constrained by Freud and Lester’s pessimism. There is beauty in marriage and family and life—and it’s not just in the rose garden.

American Beauty was directed by Sam Mendes, produced by Bruce Cohen and Dan Kinks, and released by DreamWorks.


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