How are you?
In your best Tony-the-Tiger impression, you exclaim: “I’m grrrreat!” And maybe you really are great, maybe you’re not, maybe you’re somewhere in between, or maybe you’re none of the above. Either way, the answer to this question is basically your own personal commercial for how “normal” you are, even though you know you are anything but. And it is this disciplined way of masking our genuine selves that American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) is essentially about— how there is an “entire life behind things.” All things. Even dancing plastic bags. And that there is no such thing as ordinary. Everything, everything, everything… is far from ordinary. Like you. Like me. Like life itself.
But because we are disciplined, structured, well-adjusted citizens, we instinctively give a politically correct answer. Like, “I’m good.” Or, “I’m okay.” If you don’t give such an answer, you risk being fired, or sent to a mental hospital, or put on drugs, or yelled at, or questioned, or judged. So, instead, we suppress our true feelings and go about our daily lives in a sedated manner, constantly enabling the forces behind the status quo, “masking our contempt for the assholes in charge.” This anaesthetized way of life might be preferred for a complacent society, but the danger is, this kind of lifestyle will fester behind the white picket fences until it blows up and causes a mid-life crises. Or divorce. Or plastic surgery. Or murder.
Which brings me to the most important, most haunting line of dialogue in American Beauty. “Never underestimate the power of denial.” This pointed warning is accentuated in all of the character’s, from Allison Janney’s devastating portrayal of a shell of a human to Kevin Spacey’s nuanced portrayal of a married man going through a mid-life crises. From Annette Bening’s failing real estate agent to Chris Cooper’s homophobic colonel. All are living in varying degrees of denial. This heavy specter hangs over the entire film like the red motif that appears throughout, and lingers in the mind far after the conclusion due to the tragic climax.
Technically speaking, American Beauty masterfully walks the line between a biting, smart dark comedy and a phenomenally executed tragic melodrama. This adroit combination led to five Academy Awards and a film that really struck a chord with the zeitgeist at the time. And perhaps it struck such a chord with audiences because, in a way, the movie acts as a grand therapeutic session. Along the way, as these deeply flawed characters hide themselves, reveal themselves, revolt, throw tantrums, breakdown and cry, we too go through a similar journey, and by the end we feel like we’ve gotten something off our own chests. We feel relieved. More importantly, we feel grateful for life.
Considering this, I can’t help but think that all of these characters could have been helped if they only had a therapist. They just needed to talk to someone. They just needed to be asked, “How are you?”