Do you think a drama can’t be funny?
Do you think a comedy can’t be moving?
Do you think that a drug dealer can’t be an amazing person?
Do you think life can’t begin at 40 years old?
Do you think success and happiness are the same thing?
Do you think that the beautiful goddess isn’t a person as well?
Do you think that this film didn’t deserve its praise?
Right from the start we have a posthumous narrator in a man called Lester Burnham, who says that he will die less than a year from when the film starts. He has a fairly predictable and mundane life, working a drab cubicle job and living in a neat and tidy suburban neighbourhood. His wife Carolyn is a real estate agent and was once happy and free but has now become overly ambitious and materialistic, keeping everything in the house under her control. His daughter Jane is moody and withdrawn, sensitive about her appearance and resentful to her father for pulling away from her earlier in life. The week the film starts has a few major things happen that heavily influence the direction Lester, Carolyn and Jane’s lives take them in. Firstly Carolyn starts to see her rival real estate agent Buddy Kane which leads to her entering an affair with him. Secondly a new family move in next door to them and the only son Ricky is fascinated with Jane. She too is drawn to him, not used to be admired by boys. Finally at one of Jane’s cheerleading recitals, Lester spies one of her friends Angela Hayes, an incredibly pretty and seductive girl who hopes to be a model. He is immediately attracted to her and it’s this attraction that prompts him to take control of his life, improving his health and even quitting his job. But of course we know that it’s a foregone conclusion that Lester will eventually die.
It seems that fans and critics alike have been divided on the issues about this film. It doesn’t really seem to have just one analysis. Even the director Sam Mendes isn’t quite sure about it since according to him whenever he read the script it seemed to be about a different thing. There’s definitely a bit of mystery, a few love stories, maybe a commentary on American suburbia, a life lesson and even a cautionary tale. Since I’m writing this I’ll just give you what I got from this film. For me, Lester and Carolyn represent the loss of youth. I don’t just mean growing old but losing your inner self.
It happens so often that adults grow up and their hearts die, as Ally Sheady famously said. With Carolyn, Lester said she was once happy and has now become joyless. She presents an image of this successful business lady who has everything under control when she’s deeply fragile and controlling underneath. Lester on the other hand has become a robot going through the motions. He gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed and the cycle goes on again the next day. But of course, as Humphrey Bogart famously said (yes I’m dropping two quotes in one paragraph) “life can begin at forty” and we see Lester seize the day and find himself once again. In short he and Carolyn represent everything that us younger people are most afraid of turning into and what we should take steps to avoid becoming.
The characters in this film are really brought to live by the cast. There are so many of them being juggled, each with their own story, and the film handles it perfectly unlike so many others. Kevin Spacey plays Lester and talks in a slow drawling monotone for most of the film, reflecting his character’s personality. Then slowly he seizes the day and gives himself an actual personality, being fun and witty for a change. One of the most telling scenes is the second dinner where he and Carolyn are arguing and Jane gets up to leave but Lester shouts “sit down!” at her. She and Carolyn are stunned that Lester has actually raised his voice and given her an order. Annette Bening plays Carolyn and is amazing as the obvious phony bitch we see in her attitude to the public but how she is deeply fragile whenever she’s alone such as when she nearly has a nervous breakdown when she can’t sell a house. Thora Birch returns to my screen as Jane and nearly steals the show. Jane is different from the typical fight with your parents “wah you’re ruining my life” teen we see in these types of movies. She doesn’t have any relationship with her parents, good or bad. Mena Suvari plays the complete opposite of her character in American Pie, instead playing this outgoing sexpot. An interesting thing was done with the two actresses in production where Thora wears gradually less makeup as the film goes on while Mena wears more to show how we notice the changes between them. Wes Bentley plays the eccentric Ricky Fitts and, aside from the paper bag scene which was a little too much, completely nails the role. Chris Cooper isn’t used that much as Ricky’s father but he nearly commands every scene he’s in, especially the big one towards the end.
I’d like to mention the film’s visual style because it’s pretty noticeable here. They use a flower motif a lot throughout the film and I’m going to offer up my own take on the symbolism here. The roses represent the love and relationships between Lester and the women in his life. We see full roses in bloom at the start and Carolyn cutting them, symbolising how she has cut away at their marriage and taken away the passion and romance to leave it as something almost dead. Whenever Lester fantasizes about Angela we see rose petals, representing his fresh new passion towards her. The fact that it’s petals is because the relationship hasn’t formed yet. In the big scene with Lester and Angela towards the end we see a vase of roses on the table in between them in frame, showing how that relationship is finally becoming real. Though of course the roses aren’t growing in the wild, showing why it isn’t such a good idea. The roses are notable for being the only red thing in the scene which also ties in with other scenes where white is the predominant colour, only to have a splash of red in there to stick out. The front of the house is all white with only a red front door, for example.
There’s so many brilliant scenes in this film but I’ll first describe the one where Jane “shows herself” to Ricky through the window. It’s interesting that at the beginning and end of the scene Jane and Ricky both get hit by their parents, with the other watching (Jane gets slapped by Carolyn and Ricky’s father bursts into his room and attacks him). Thora Birch was sixteen at the time and bares her breasts fully on screen, making us all wonder why her character wanted to get a boob job in the first place. For me, I saw that as a way of rebelling against Carolyn for hitting her and wanting to do something passionate so she shows Ricky her breasts through the window. The big thing I noticed is that when we see Ricky filming it, the camera is focused on Jane’s face and it’s her expression that’s compelling him. The love scene between them later is also quite tender and nicely shot with the use of the TV monitor showing one filming the other when they’re not on screen. I love the scene between Lester and Angela near the end where (spoiler warning!!) they kiss and everything else. We’ve seen Lester imagining this happening before and we’ve seen Angela as a goddess but in that scene we see how wrong this attraction is. In that moment when Angela drops her bombshell Lester realises that she isn’t a goddess, she’s still just a child. The scene after that with the two of them in the kitchen is so sweet that it does make you want to go “awww”.
It seems 1999 was a great year for films when you take into account that this, Fight Club, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project and Boys Don’t Cry all came from that year in particular. These days of course you will get people calling it overrated but that expression is so overdone and doesn’t mean anything in my opinion. To me, overrated translates as “it’s popular and I want to be different so I’ll say I don’t like it” and that’s pretty much my attitude towards a lot of the films on my list that have their haters purely because they’re popular. I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of the paper bag scene, especially when the filmmakers admitted it took a lot of work with leaf blowers to get it to move that way. Aside from that, it’s a great film and of course it’s in my top ten. It would probably also be one of the films that I would stand up and applaud at in the cinema after it was over though strangely I haven’t actually gotten that opportunity yet with any film. Anyway let’s all take a life lesson from this film and appreciate the finer things in life, like what my Twitter account looks like.