‘So this is what happens when the American dream turns sour. Director Mendes and leads Spacey and Bening have really twisted the knife into American society with this dark comedy about love, hate, passion, and murder’ (Lewin, 2000: n.p.)
American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes) is captivating and emotive, but it is rather difficult to say why. It is even more challenging to explain why it is funny despite its candid portrayal of matrimonial frustration, betrayal and murder. The fundamental factors of its comedy are the characters Lester and Carolyn, who are also responsible for the unleashing of its tragedy. They embody a couple that the audience is seemingly very familiar with, but with their drastic alterations the audience is gradually exposed to what it probably does not see every day. It is precisely this counter-behaviour, this revolt of both characters that allows the viewer to laugh, it is extraordinary. The crises of the movie are very well and universally known, but Lester and Carolyn start to act differently, rebelling against the pre-conceived norms and rules. This gives the viewer a certain distance, freedom, lightness and the ability to identify with them on another basis: comedy through tragedy. Despite the fact that tragedy is still very present in the film, the married couple manages to pervert their desolate realities into something comic, even if it is only ephemeral, it works. In order for the Burnhams to gain access to their comic aspects, they must transgress, transcend and revolt against the order they lived in and by for too long, especially within their proper relationship. The tragicomedy of the Burnham family is a universal one, a relatable happy-family-next-door farce that will be predominantly dismantled by Lester. Unlike its theme-twinned movies like The Hours (2002, dir. Stephen Daldry), Little Children (2006, dir. Todd Field), Revolutionary Road (2008, dir. Sam Mendes) and Gone Girl (2014, dir. David Fincher), American Beauty does not entirely give in to the almost exclusively hopeless depictions of youth-nostalgia, suburban melancholy, marital depression and dead-ended midlife crises. The above mentioned masterpieces leave almost no space for humour in their highly dramatic terrain, but without comedy American Beauty would precisely lose its beauty. Despite the flawed ‘solutions’ Lester and Carolyn engage in to put themselves out of their misery, the movie nevertheless tries to convey a perspective, an alternative, a way out or precisely a returning way in. Humour is the factor that temporarily saves the characters because it is something both of them have lost at some point and have forgotten the immaterial value of it. As Roger Ebert declares, it ‘is a comedy because we laugh at the absurdity of the hero’s problems. And a tragedy because we can identify with his failure–not the specific details, but the general outline’. (Ebert, 1999: n.p.)
By using Hélène Cixous’ concept of the ‘patriarchal binary thought’, Toril Moi explains that it is composed by two categories opposing each other, one embodying the weaker party, which in this case is the female one in confrontation with the male (Moi, 2001:104). This couple consisting of binary oppositions is self-destructive because they are constantly trying to overthrow each other, whereas the winning masculine party is already predetermined. Moi explains:
For one of the terms to acquire meaning, she claims, it must destroy the other. The ‘couple’ cannot be left intact: it becomes a general battlefield where the struggle for signifying supremacy is forever re-enacted. In the end, victory is equated with activity and defeat with passivity; under patriarchy, the male is always the victor. (Moi, 2001: 104-105)
To obliterate the belief that women are either considered to be passive or plagued by the impression that they are inexistent, Cixous generates the ‘advent of a new, feminine language’ to substitute muteness with expression and subjugation with (re)action in order for the ‘patriarchal binary schemes’ to be deconstructed (Moi, 2001: 105). This theory can be reversely applied to the dynamics between Lester and Carolyn. In the beginning, it is Carolyn in every detail of her masquerade who dominates him because he simply seems to have given up by adapting himself to his unnecessary empty role in her life. At some point the power play changes dramatically and Lester starts to revolt, not by overthrowing her, but by simply not caring anymore. In this dysfunctional relationship, where the wife is all about pretence and the husband is all about overtness, they both are self-destructive as a couple, emancipated as individuals, but still confronted to and captured by the issues of their marital, social and familial existence. Carolyn begins to feel threatened by Lester’s sudden change of attitude because she is not familiar with it and therefore, in Henri Bergson’s viewpoint, is unable to find it funny. However, the viewer’s ability to see the humour of Lester’s behaviour is increased because his honesty makes him more relatable and thereby familiar.
Due to the fact that Carolyn literally fears that the role she forces herself to perform cannot withstand anymore, she constantly tries to regain her sense, her power and her influence, whereas Lester finds all of them without explicitly wanting them. She starts to fight him as if it were a war and for her it is because she is by far more confused than Lester, who only tries his best to regain what he has lacked all these years. It almost seems that without the belittlement of Lester she makes no sense anymore and has difficulties finding herself again without him, then with him the way he changed and then only through the prospect of killing him. He throws her into her most challenging identity crisis. After the initial matriarchy, who comes out as a winner here? Without creating a patriarchy, Lester just escapes any form of politics, rules or behavioural codes whatsoever. Neither of them reacts passively, they both win and lose because they learn too late that they can be active. The feeling of inexistence is Lester’s initial problem, then it becomes Carolyn’s and they both try to re-exist through extra-marital fantasies or catalysts. Lester deconstructs the façade Carolyn has mostly build for and around him over the years, leaving her in her sudden meaninglessness to which she rather reacts violently especially because he starts to change his general tone and speak his mind, basically everything what she tried to eliminate beforehand.
American Beauty has been originally written as a play by Alan Ball, and Mendes, who is also a British stage director, brought a lot of theatrical aspects into it. Anthony Kubiak brings together Judith Butler’s concept of performativity and the ‘Brechtian alienation and critical thought’ (Kubiak, 1998: 92). He explains Butler’s views that ‘[p]erformance is more showing than becoming. The forces at work in performativity are more insidious, hidden, concealed, and self-concealing’ (Kubiak, 1998: 91). In contrast to Lester, Carolyn desperately tries to be spotless and display an ‘image of success at all times’ and costs. She forces herself to deliver a conformist and sanctimonious performance in suburbia and at work. The scene where she consistently fails to sell a house symbolises her attitude to apprehend and qualify things the way they are not. If ugly, she will force herself to see and sell them as beautiful and the same counts for her life. After a private breakdown, she pressures herself into functioning again, to be a societal business machine and quickly recovers, wiping away her tears, the proofs of her humanity, and walks away from the memory of her emotional ruin. The dialogues between the ‘horny geek boy’ and his wife are comic because whilst Lester is not trying to maintain the peaceful façade, Carolyn is still holding on to this ideal family image and talks about it without any sense of realism or self-criticism. Carolyn is not as straightforward and fearless as Lester, she embellishes the problems they talk about, whilst Lester calls them by their names. He knows that by being utterly honest in conversation that he infuriates her, but still she would not really change the scenery.
Kubiak further analyses: ‘As theatre seemingly disappears, we lose critical focus- we lose, in a sense, our critical faculties. Theatre- as the site of both representation and transformation, has always, somewhere, seen this’ (Kubiak, 1998: 92). Lester is the reason why the theatrical façade of their marriage and life disappears, although he lives out the comedy of it because that is the only thing left. As Carolyn and Lester get more sincere in their dismantlement the audience grows more comfortable with them, losing track of the tragedy, which is nevertheless balanced by the scenes of the youngsters’ triad and Ricky’s parents. In accordance with Georges Bataille’s theories there cannot be comedy without tragedy. The Burnhams try to set themselves free of their interpretations of each other and rediscover or take back their autonomy as Stanley Cavell explains.
There are three main sources of comedy within the film: Lester’s narrative and dialogues, the revolt of his character and his awkward inter-relations.
He is introduced as the failed husband figure through a double-edged dialogue between Ricky’s voice behind a hand-held camera and Lester’s daughter who discriminates her father. She jokingly agrees to Ricky’s hypothetical offer to murder Lester, but has no idea at this point that, fundamentally, her father will be assassinated. She was only joking. This introductory sequence sets the mood for the entire movie. Lester’s voice-over imitates the monotony of his environment by using a stressed anaphora: ‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. […] This will be the high point of my day’. In the boredom he used to exist in, he finds comfort in his post-mortem ridiculing narrative where he can lovingly mock his wife and his ‘stupid little life’ in retrospective. In the enumeration regarding his autobiography, his life has the cynical third rank amongst the defining elements in his life. First comes the neighbourhood, then the street and then his life, which is restricted to imprisoning domesticity. It is precisely Lester’s comment on his own character that he watches with the viewer, which reveal his cynicism towards the pettiness of routines and hypocrisy. In his post-traumatic voice-over he is humorously blunt and praises his ‘jerking off in the shower’ as the culminating point of his day, sexually and literally. As soon after he utters that everything is going downhill from that moment on, Carolyn is introduced, which is no coincidence.
Only after Lester’s death, he realises how to ‘look closer’ and see the funny and ridiculous side of his life, which could have turned out differently if it would not have been taken this seriously and captivatingly by all of the protagonists. His realistic and authentic view on his work, which he abhors and forces him to conformity, is a statement that is often felt, but rarely expressed. Lester’s mockery hides behind the detached and accentuated tone of how he says normal sentences. When asked by his superior if he has a minute, he over-enthusiastically and artificially answers, that ‘for you Brad, I got five’. His masked and adapted facial and verbal expression is comic because the viewer knows how he really feels about his job. His rather sarcastic attempt to sound as over-ambitious and falsely forthcoming as his wife in this scene is laughable because the audience knows that he is anything but eager to converse with ‘this really friendly guy named Brad’.
‘That’s my wife, Carolyn. […] That’s not an accident.’ Similar to his self-presentation, he introduces Carolyn with an anaphoric sentence structure that mocks her excessive attention to detail when it comes to her obsessively perfectionist outer appearance. Whilst she is cutting her thought-through superficially impressive front-garden roses, he is watching her behind the confines of a window. The cutting of the roses’ stipe and their entire disembodiment from the lawn hints at his metaphorical castration and matriarchal domestication when she carries them inside in her basket to cage them into a vase on display. The stereotypical power struggles and gender roles seem to be reversed, which, without deteriorating into sexism, makes Lester even more absurdly funny and humorously pitiful.
He even combines an anaphora and an epistrophe in one sentence, representing and closing the senseless cycle of conventional and traditional boredom to which even usually considered non-conformist, in this case homosexual, couples can succumb. ‘That’s our next-door neighbour, Jim. And that’s his lover, Jim.’ Suburbia can make anybody boring and uniformed according to Lester’s intoned perspective. By hearing the ‘lame-o’s’ viewpoint the audience immediately gets a sense for the hollow and minimalistic dialogue between Carolyn and one of the Jims, which probably would not be exposed and qualified as such if Lester and the light-hearted music would not draw the viewer’s attention to it. In the background, amidst the homosexual neighbour and Carolyn, the Stepford wife performing for society’s approval, Lester observes the scene from inside the house, almost covered by curtains and getting ‘exhausted just watching her’.
The triangular catastrophe consists of the maniacal matriarch, the frustrated ‘freak’ and the backseat father who lusts after his daughter’s teenaged friend as an escape route. In the sequence where Carolyn honks at her daughter and her husband to get them out of the house, her bright neighbour façade is gone. She dislikes her daughter’s rather sincere un-masqueraded looks and barks at Lester ironically asking him ‘if [he] could make [her] a little later, please, because [she] is not quite late enough’. Of course he too, ‘succeed[s] admirably’ at failing her which makes her frown at him. Lester then confirms in his narrative that his family thinks of him as a loser. One of the two times where Lester plays the happy family part is after he first beheld Angela and desperately craves to be introduced to her. Despite Angela’s similarities to Carolyn in terms of deceitful appearance and tricking people with her misleading projections of false selfhoods, she immediately notices what is lacking in the relationship of Jane’s parents. Whilst Carolyn behaves as usual, Lester tries to behave the same way to get closer to Angela and impress her. He suddenly fakes an interest and attention for Jane and abruptly turns to Angela. The situation is absolutely awkward because Lester’s schemes are clumsily obvious. His facial expression whilst standing next to his wife and basically salivating over his daughter’s friend is so embarrassing and grotesque that one might wonder why Angela’s own charade is not more transparent to him as it should be recognisable to him, maybe she reminds him of who Carolyn used to be, a ‘girl who used to fake seizures at frat parties when she got bored’, the adolescent he fell in love with and whom he seeks now in a reactive underage girl in moments of lost youthful nostalgia, which is nothing more than a dead alley.
What all of the following scenes ‘act happy tonight’ at the business party, ‘smoking pot now’ in the garage, ‘choking the bishop’ in the bedroom, ‘pass the asparagus’ at the dining table and the ‘smile! You’re at Mr. Smiley’s’ at the fast food drive-through, have in common is their perversion of the domestic and societal clichés into reality and honesty, the usual mixed with the new and rebellious. Lester inter-dynamically mocks Carolyn’s wish of performance by acting too exaggeratedly and artificially, thereby he imitates her behaviour in a way. Despite the fact that others do not fully realise what is going on, Carolyn is aware of what Lester is doing, but still plays along with her hyperbolical laughter and sticks to her chosen role. Sigmund Freud states that:
The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure. (Freud, 1928: 162)
Another reality is that Lester’s wife cheats on him and in a ‘normal’ scenario, provoked would be the least of his feelings. The unforeseeable nature that Lester adapts is precisely what renders him funny. Despite the fact that the reality of Carolyn’s busted betrayal he stands his ground and genuinely ‘refuses to be distressed’. Instead he rather enjoys the ‘Mr. Smiley’s’ situation, which gives him the upper hand in the comedic power play between them. In contrast to Carolyn, who suffers more and more in her identity crisis and failure to embellish, procrastinate and repress it further, Lester escapes his sedated state and temporarily abolishes his access to pain because he has had enough of it. What should be another trauma for him is only a new source of accelerating and prolonging comedy. It is rather paradoxical that, in this scene Lester behaves exactly the way Carolyn always urged him to, be a machine, a role-model product of society and an emotionally detached sunshine, but for the first time tells him ‘to stop it’. It might be the first time that she realises the lie that they lived or that she forced him to live. By imitating and enacting her controlling mannerisms in public she sees how ridiculous it is because he acts like nothing has happened and as if the situation wasn’t awkward. The truth is, it is only awful for Carolyn and her lover, not for Lester. In this scene he gives her what she always asked of him, but only then realises that it is wrong, unnatural, despicable and absolutely hilarious to watch.
American Beauty has the perfect balance between theatricality and sincerity. Lester realises the dialogues that almost never happen in reality, but are a common wishful thinking scenario, he dares to be daring, to not care anymore and speak his mind. Even though it ends tragically, Lester gains his authenticity and dignity back. The ‘ordinary guy’ who lost something becomes the man ‘who has nothing to lose’, except his life, which he has learned to treasure before his death and that is the beauty of it. The scene where his superior, Brad, reads his supposedly job saving description to him, thinking that he knows the development of the scene and that he truly is superior to Lester, is again distorted by Lester’s reckless attitude. He behaves unexpectedly and paradoxically for someone who does not know what is going on. He crosses every single boundary there is and even reads along with Brad in utter pride and demonstration of sheer carelessness. The truth sounds so good: ‘My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men’s room so I can jerk off while I fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble Hell’. Although he does not really insult them face to face, his formally requested and adapted written statement is even funnier because it is indirectly direct and as he probably thinks a great piece of prose that really shows ‘who is valuable and who is expendable’. Marc Lee states that:
In his big-screen debut, the British director Sam Mendes shines a bright light into the dark heart of the American dream. With its parade of neurotics, psychotics, bigots and deceivers, American Beauty is an endlessly rewatchable black comedy, and it’s perfect that, at the end, as Lester’s dead eyes stare out at us in extreme close-up, there is a small smile on his lips. Finally, he sees the joke. (Lee, 2014: n.p.)
Simon Fanshawe’s view is compatible with Lee’s, saying that ‘the film cuts at the heart of modern America, of which the media is so much a reflection, stripping away the pretence of well-being layer by layer, all the way through black comedy to poignancy’(Fanshawe, 2000: n.p.). In order to ‘humourise’ something, one must be familiar with its sadness. Mendes combines the two, the tragedy in dialogue with the comedy, one misunderstanding the other, one creating and evoking the other. Seen through Lester’s eyes, the American Dream is an American Charade and really a shallow and materialistic nightmare for him to which the only exit is humour, absolute bluntness and a highly inappropriate sexual prospect (which is not consummated because his moral compass kicks in), smoke ‘illegal psychotropic substances’ and listen to rock music. He refuses to grow old with the ‘American woman’ by his side, or as he calls her, the ‘bloodless, money-grubbing freak’. Lester tries to make Carolyn understand and visualise that a couch is just a couch. He takes the over-praised American Dream concept and over-ridicules it, without losing focus on its serious problem-causing effects.
Through the intelligent use of philosophical seriousness and quick-witted dialogues Mendes shows that humans are no machines and that there is always a choice, an opportunity to change and that it is never too late to do so. Sometimes humour has its quicker ways to work itself through the hearts and mind-sets of the spectators. The outer humour surrounding American Beauty is peaceful and non-violent, whereas the inner humour of the film comes up at incomprehension and conflict, which is better than a deceptive harmony and the repression of frustrations. Steven Spielberg claims that:
It was incredibly multi-layered, but it made me laugh. Then I read it again, and it was full of sadness and loneliness, about imprisonment and escape. Then there was this theme of beauty running through it, and it was so many different things and I just didn’t know how Alan [Ball] had done it. And that really fascinated me. (Spielberg quoted in Fanshawe, 2000: n.p.)
Mendes demonstrates that marriage is not about a neighbourhood or a street, but about dead ends and high roads. He shows that performance or performativity is rarely authentic, rather forced and restricts human nature. At the same time, he manages to expose the comic sides of everything Lester’s and Carolyn’s marriage and performativity entails. The necessarily truthful rebellion against pre-conceived, traditional, conventional, archetypical and imposed life schemes is exactly what is fascinating about American Beauty. What mainly differentiates Revolutionary Road from American Beauty is its absolute seriousness and humourlessness, nevertheless they both have more or less the same ending, which is a universal one, so why be angry, why not just laugh? In Bertolt Brecht’s words: ‘Wir stehen selbst enttäuscht und sehn betroffen // Den Vorhang zu und alle Fragen offen’.
American Beauty, 1999, drama film, dir. Sam Mendes, distributed by DreamWorks Pictures, United States.
Ebert, R. (1999) ‘Reviews: American Beauty’, Roger Ebert, September.
Fanshawe, S. (2000) ‘Sam smiles’, The Guardian, January.
Kubiak, A. (1998) ‘Splitting the Difference: Performance and Its Double in American Culture’, TDR, Vol. 42, No. 4, published by: The MIT Press.
Lee, M. (2014) ‘American Beauty Review’, The Telegraph, September.
Lewin, K. (2000) ‘Movies: American Beauty Review’, BBC Films, December.
Moi, T. (2001) Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, Routledge, London and New York.
Strachey, J. (ed.) Freud, S. (1928) ‘On Humor’ in The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, published by: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London.