American Beauty: A 90s Retrospect

Intro by Maria

On this episode, we talk about the 1999 movie American Beauty. It is yet another “because of the 90s” film; however, Brandon and I didn’t specifically choose this movie to watch. Instead, we’re watching it because it was the Academy Award winner for best picture.

If you haven’t seen the film, it stars Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, a white middle-aged guy having a midlife crisis. When put that way, the movie doesn’t seem particularly special, and if I’m being honest, 21 years later and given the current climate today, the movie falls flat, but back in the 90s, the movie really stood out as dark portrayal of society and life—most likely a product of the angst many people felt during that time. But don’t worry about the details of that—Brandon talks about how this film is a product of its time during this episode.

So the movie focuses on Lester and his crisis, but everyone in the movie is having their own 1990s angsty crisis. Lester’s wife Carolyn wants to be the best realtor ever—in fact, she really just wants to be successful, but she so often falls short, wanting to become the protege of Real Estate King Buddy Kane, played by Peter Gallagher. Of course they end up having an affair.

Then there’s Angela who wants to be anything but ordinary. During his crisis—in his quest to be free of adult responsibility—Lester lusts after Angela, who is in high school and is Janie’s friend. Janie Burnham’s friend. HIS DAUGHTER. HIS HIGH SCHOOL DAUGHTER.

Yes, this is creepy, and yes, years later, after we now know that real-life Kevin Spacey preyed on underage boys, it is even creepier. 

And Janie is just as disillusioned as everyone else. She is utterly embarrassed about her parents, and she, perhaps along with her boyfriend Ricky Fitts, comes out of this movie seeming like they are the only decent human beings around, but really, just everyone is confused, full of angst, and sick of life. 

The movie ends with the death of Lester—killed by Ricky’s homophobic, Nazi-paraphernelia collecting, military-grade father. And after all is said and done, and after all the stink Lester makes about wanting to live life on his own terms, Lester dies before he can really achieve anything, and that’s okay—because there’s just so much beauty in the world. 

Yes, it ends with that, and yes, it’s kind of fast and it’s kind of weird, but remember, this was the 90s. We wanted to be angry, we wanted to be fed up with the system, we wanted to see the beauty. And years later, yes, we’re still angry, we’re still fed up, but just not what Lester was so fed up with. And so the movie just seems to peter out and dissolve now. Back in 1999, though, when I first saw it in theaters, I thought about it and talked about it for a very long time. Just not the same experience this time around.

In terms of mental health, Brandon talks about the movie being an allegory and what that means, and I talk about my experience with being hospitalized for mental health issues because Ricky Fitts, as we learn, was hospitalized for that, and it’s a point made several times in the movie. It made me feel like I had to talk about my experience to kind of “set the record straight.”

So be prepared to take yet another dark ride into the 1990s where I’m hoping you find some beauty at the end of the tunnel—on this next episode of Peculiar Picture Show.

Show Summary

Overall Thoughts: An effective comedy that sums up the angst of the 90s

B: Ultimate 90s film; swept the Oscars; critics praised this movie when it came out; in the 90s, everyone was pissed off but they didn’t know why, and this film captures it so well

M: Saw it in the movie theatre; like a “who-done-it” mystery movie—we know Lester is dead but we don’t know who kills him; Kevin Spacey controversy; underage lust doesn’t really age well; needs male nudity

Like: Artful creative choices and a little time capsule of 90s thought and culture

B: Forced me to look at how I changed since the 90s; because of the 90s; humor still works; a lot of different little things

M: Art direction; Carolyn, even though the movie seems to set her up as a villain; it’s a mystery film without focusing on the mystery; still interesting  

Dislike: A white male fantasy that ultimately falls flat

B: Cliches all over the place regarding rebellions, attitudes, homophobia, self help; very indicative of the 90s; white suburban fantasy; white American dream; Lester’s turn at the end comes out from nowhere

M: Lester; Janie’s characterization is weird; setting is weird—supposed to be Chicago, and trees are dead, but flowers and grass are there; neighborhood that is supposed to be “average” but is rich; Lester’s problems seem stupid 

Mental Health: The psychology of 90s angst, and hospitalization for mental health issues

B: Allegory; throughout the film, Lester struggles with the two competing views of how people should treat appearances; subtle messaging; concerns in the 90s were valid, and 9/11 changed that

M: Ricky was committed to a mental institution, and that seems like a bad thing; actual hospitalization may not always be the worst thing


B: There seems to be two competing lifestyles in this movie: being obsessed with what everyone thinks about you or being completely free from what everyone thinks about you. That’s the transformation we see from Lester. He begins by his life being defined by what everyone thinks of him and then moves to not caring. 

B: In the 90s, there were a lot of people who were mad, but not a lot of people who could articulate why and it just seemed like every year we were getting angrier and angrier. That changed with 9/11. 9/11 happened, and people started getting serious about everything. There was a drastic, dramatic change in how we felt about things, but if we didn’t have that change, who knew where we were going to end up.

Next Movie

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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