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American Beauty Film Trailer Analysis
The classic white suburbia is constantly portrayed in the film trailer of American Beauty. However, if you look closer, you may see underlying issues of what is supposed to be the perfect world.
The trailer begins with an overlooking view of a classic suburban neighborhood. There are two white men, something already that seems to be deemed “strange” in this suburban world, running along side each other in perfect strides. Then there is the view of a classic suburban housewife, pruning her roses. The lines that pop up through these clips of scenes are “You see a street”, “like any street” and then “look closer”. The words “Look Closer” are a recurring theme throughout this entire trailer. It’s begging you to notice the fact that everything is not what it seems. In a world that prides itself on being perfect, uniform, and unflawed, it is clear that in this suburban town, there are many issues hiding just below the surface. Unlike other film trailers that take place in urban cities and make it completely obvious what issues are going on there, like race issues or orientation issues, this trailer asks you to read between the lines and see what isn’t there, and how that reflects on suburban society in real life.
The next bit in the trailer is banter between neighbors, speaking nothing of importance, just a comment about his tie. The trailer seems to be portraying the average neighborhood, in an average town, with average people. Immediately I question, why are middle class white people portrayed as “the average” in this film? Or even “the norm” in this society.
From then, a man is getting out of bed, putting his slippers on. The words that come on the screen are “You see a man.” He looks out the window to where his wife is speaking to the neighbor over their fence. The words come up again, reading “who’s hardly there.” Again, the words “Look closer” are repeated. This is already indicating to me that although the trailer is containing this “perfect image of society”, there are clearly issues going on with people who are striving for perfection. The husband, Lester, doesn’t look very happy with the way his wife, Carolyn, is touching their next-door neighbor.
The film trailer continues with Lester hurrying out of the house, Carolyn and daughter, Jane, waiting for him impatiently at the car. As he runs up, he drops his brief case and all of his papers fall out. Jane snidely remarks nice going dad. It seems apparent at this point that the wife and daughter constantly look down on the father. After so much abuse, even though they may just be small comments each day, that can really get to a person, and probably cause lasting mental effects.
After this opening/introduction of the main family, another character is introduced. A white teenage male is shown filming into Lester and Carolyn’s home. An older man’s voice is heard from downstairs, yelling “Ricky!” In Lester’s home across from Ricky’s window is another teenage girl, Jane’s best friend, in her underwear dancing around in front of the window, attempting to get the camera’s attention. The words “Look closer” come up again, and Ricky zooms in past the other girl to the reflection in the mirror of the troubled daughter, Jane. She has a slight smile on her face. Ricky says “coming dad.” He puts the camera down and gazes out of the window for a few long seconds, with an unreadable expression on his face. Again, the words “Look Closer” come on the screen.
In the next instant, an image of a white house with a red door and blue shutters is in view. The gardening around the house is pristine. Every bush, plant, and decoration is in perfect symmetry. The house looks “perfect”.
Then the garage door opens, and Lester is working out. Carolyn stands in the driveway with her hands on her hips looking disapprovingly at her husband. She says “What do you think you’re doing?” And then the music starts. It is upbeat and it immediately makes you believe that something is going to change in this story.
The word “Work” comes up. Lester is sitting in his boss’s office, listening to a speech from a white man in a grey business suit. He says, “We’re having everyone write out a job description, that way management can assess who’s valuable-“and at that moment Lester chimes in with “who’s expendable.” At this point, it is clear that he is fed up with his life. He doesn’t seem to have much respect for his boss; because of the way he cuts him off and makes him feel awkward.
The next word that pops up is “Family”. There is a clip of Jane sitting on the bleachers in a cheerleading outfit discussing how her parents are really getting on her nerves. “My parents are trying to take an active interest in me, why can’t they just have their own lives?” The parents are then shown sitting in the bleachers, watching their daughter perform a cheerleading routine. Then it cuts to a scene that must come after the cheerleading where Carolyn says to her daughter, beaming, “I’m so proud of you. You didn’t screw up once!” This also is a clear indicator of the way suburbia suppresses any kind of faults. Any sort of non-conformity is unacceptable in this type of world. Jane’s expression is shown which a face of “Really? Is it so hard to believe that I can do something right?”
The next word that comes up is “Neighbors”. The best friend, Angela’s, voice is then heard saying “Oh my god, it’s that pyscho next door!” On the lawn by the side of the Burnham’s house is the word “Jane” burning. Angela then says, “Jane, what if he worships you?” Ricky, who we saw earlier in the trailer videotaping the girls, is standing on his porch at night, and turns on an overhead light.
The next scene is outside of a building, where Jane is standing with Angela. Ricky comes up to her and says, “I didn’t mean to scare you- I’m not obsessing. I’m just curious.” Ricky must have walked away, because in the next clip, Jane and Angela are standing along side of the building alone. Angela has a cigarette in her hand and asks Jane, “Why does he dress like a bible salesman?” Angela is the perfect example of how the suburban world sees the rest of the world. Anyone who doesn’t look, act, or behave like the rest of the town, should be shunned. Regardless if they are white, or another race, it’s the behavior that really throws these people off. They are too “perfect” to seem like they are racist. They can only discriminate against people who are enough like them, but are different in another way.
Continuing with the trailer, the word “Change” comes up. Lester’s voice is heard saying, “Today I quit my job.” We then see him walking out of his office with a box of his stuff. He pumps his fist in excitement. “Then I blackmailed my boss for almost 60,000 dollars. Pass the asparagus.” The family is sitting down to eat as he tells them this news. Carolyn looks absolutely shocked and horrified.
The next part of the trailer is what might really shock the rest of the world about suburban society. “Your dad is actually kind of cute,” says Angela, Jane’s best friend. There is a clip of her looking at the father with a strange twinkle in her eye. She rubs her hand up his arm, and he looks stiff with surprise. She smiles at him. Jane and Angela are in Jane’s room when Angela says, “I think he and your mother have not slept together in a long time.” Jane replies with, “Shut up!” Angela may not be an indicator that all young women in suburban towns try to hook up with older, married men, but she is an indicator of what goes wrong a lot of the time when raising children in an environment that is so repressed. She is most likely sheltered, rebellious, and mentally confused with what is right and wrong. Jane, on the other hand, came out more depressed and quiet, in sort of a self-mutilating kind of way.
The next clip is of another man whom it seems is on a date with Carolyn. I think this because the next clip is of Carolyn and Lester in the bedroom with Carolyn screeching, “You think you’re the only one who’s frustrated?” Lester replies, “I’m not? Well then come on baby, I’m ready!” Carolyn sits down, bewildered. It’s as if in this protected and cushy environment, Lester is the only character who has realized that he’s not happy with his life, and has decided to act on that by quitting his job, etc. The other people surrounding him, including his wife, do not know how to handle this new behavior because they are so used to “following the rules” of suburbia. Lester seems to have the “American Dream” in his grasp, but feels repressed by it. Maybe the “American Dream” is not such a beautiful idea.
Ricky is videotaping Lester in the garage from his bedroom window, watching him do naked bicep curls. Ricky jokingly says, “Welcome to America’s weirdest home videos.” Then Ricky’s father comes into Ricky’s bedroom, furious, and punches his son across the face saying, “This is for your own good boy.” He then says, “There are rules in life!” Ricky says back, “Yes sir. Don’t give up on me dad.” If anything in the trailer indicates that there are issues between parents and teens, this is the scene. The “youth v. adult” fight goes on everywhere in the world, not just in suburban areas, but it almost seems heightened in small towns where there is no room to be different or express yourself. The fact that Ricky’s father walked in on him videotaping a naked man, punched him in the face, and told him about “rules he must follow” (rules of suburbia most likely), may suggest that he hates people who are gay or lesbian. Prejudice against orientation is most evident in this part of the trailer.
The famous words “Look Closer” once again come upon the screen. Carolyn is in the car, pulled up to a drive thru window, with the man she was seen out to dinner with. He is kissing her neck. Lester apparently found a new job as a drive thru attendant, after quitting his office job, and is working in the drive thru when his wife pulls up. Lester says without hesitation, “Smile! You’re at Mr. Smileys.” The woman working next to Lester says, “You are so busted.” This light comedy throughout the trailer is probably to lighten the intensity of the issues circulating in the film, and relax all of the pointing out of flaws in real suburban society. The fact that Carolyn has cheated on her husband is also something a little more common in suburban society. Cheating on spouses as a trait of suburban society is not saying that all people who live in suburban areas are “bad people”, just that they are constantly under the pressure of fitting in and being perfect, which may make them crack more often than the city dweller.
Then there is a clip of Carolyn shooting a gun at a range. She exclaims, “I love shooting this gun!” It’s as if she’s releasing all of her pent up emotions from living in a home where she is a stranger to her husband and daughter. Having the affair and shooting such a powerful weapon is an outlet for her.
There is a brief view of Angela opening up her shirt with rose petals flowing out of her chest. She tips her head back in a sexual sort of way, and I think it is added to the trailer to show how extreme her lure is to Lester; he’s objectifying her. He finds her perfect, in a world that is supposed to be perfect, and this is probably misleading as are all of the pretenses in a world so sheltered. Lester is using Angela as a way to escape the life he is living in this prison of suburbia.
There is a very special moment with Jane and Ricky in a dark room, where Ricky whispers to her with such emotion and power in his eyes, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.” Ricky seems like the only character that sees the world in the most optimistic, positive view. With all of the bad surrounding him, including people’s prejudices against him, which were evident with Angela’s “Why is he dressed like a bible salesman” line and the fact that his father will abuse him if he thinks that he is not a “normal” teenager. The way that he handles these situations, by telling his father what he wants to hear (“Don’t give up on me dad”), he is attempting to show others how amazing the world truly is. He is the guiding light in a town that is absent of any other cultures, race, or different orientations. It’s not that he is advocating being more open to other people, it’s that he sees everyone as equal, and that no one has a label. There is too much beauty in the world to notice any imperfections in people.
The end of the trailer is a series of short little clips including Lester laying down in his bed with roses falling onto his chest, falling from where Angela is naked and smiling, with rose petals covering up all the necessary areas of her body, Carolyn shutting the blinds in a dark house, sighing heavily and Lester working out. It cuts to Ricky and his father driving in the car, and then Carolyn in the car screaming out of sheer insanity. Angela is winking behind her shoulder, which is probably a part of one of Lester’s fantasies. Ricky is standing outside the door of Jane’s house, she opens the door, and he asks her, “If I leave tonight, would you come with me?” She replies “yes” without hesitation. The clips get shorter and shorter, the music being quicker paced and the audience automatically feels more invested in what is going to happen. There is a flicker of a hand grabbing a gun, a hug between Ricky and Jane, part of the cheerleading routine, a shot of Jane’s eye through the view of Ricky’s video camera, Lester smashing a plate against a wall, and finally Carolyn walking through the pouring rain down her perfect neighborhood street. All the while, you see a rose blooming in fast forward speed. The word “Beauty” comes up on the screen, just as a loud gunshot is heard, forcing Angela to turn around where she’s standing over the sink in the bathroom. And finally, another word sleekly slides into the frame, combining with the word “Beauty”, creating the title “American Beauty”.
In “American Beauty”, there is not even a “nice white lady” who takes control of the situation, and helps the people in need overcome their problems. Everyone is “equal” in this suburban nightmare. In fact, the women who are portrayed in the film trailer (Carolyn and Jane) are really seen as falling apart, mostly in the mental category. Jane seems to come out of her depression by the end when Ricky takes her under his wing, but unfortunately this is not the case in most real life situations.
It might be correct to wonder if having Carolyn as a mother caused Jane’s issues. In The Cinema of Suburban Paranoia by Steve Macek, he says, “In the work of black directors, the problems of the black community are all too often laid at the fact of simple mothers who, it is implied, ‘cannot properly raise their sons’”. Although I am pulling this out of a completely different context from what is occurring in the American Beauty trailer, it’s almost as if this idea about how much effect a mother can have on her child still holds true. In this case, we are not in a city environment with African Americans being the main race, we are in a suburban town, and it is a mother influencing her daughter’s behavior, not a son’s. Although mothers in a city can be absent, a mother in a suburban environment is constantly around and leading a young person to insanity. This probably has more negative lasting effects than the latter. So what is worse? Growing up without a mom or with one who is persistently telling you all of your faults and blunders?
Another interesting point that the trailer makes is the difference between “adult love” and “young love”. They portray the adult parent’s relationship as unhappy, loveless, and seriously depressing. They portray Jane and Ricky’s relationship as exciting, new, and blissful. Ricky even asks Jane at one point if she would consider leaving this town and running away with him, where she immediately says yes. Is this because they want to escape what both their parents seem to be stuck in? When these two loves mix, for example Angela and Lester’s completely inappropriate relationship, it seems that Lester believes he is young, and is experiencing real love and bliss all over again. In The Cinema of Suburban Paranoia, Mack says, “The urban landscape Frank and his friends stumble into is a lawless environment, a ‘wild west’ in which only the ‘strongest’ and most ‘masculine’ will survive”. The “American Beauty” trailer depicts just the opposite of that. This is the most law-filled society that you’re going to come across. However, Lester, and it seems Ricky’s father, believe that you need to be the “strongest” and “most masculine” in order to function in this world.
Although this movie is older, coming out in 1999, there are movies that are more recent that still represent and reveal that this is the way suburban society still function. For example, The Kids are Alright came out in 2010 and is about a family in a suburban neighborhood whose lives are turned upside down when their birth father enters the picture. Although in this film the main characters of two lesbians, this is always something that unsettles people around them, and is a large part of why they have issues accepting the birth father into their lives. Anything out of the ordinary is not accepted, just like in “American Beauty”.
This movie trailer has the classic “coming of age” story, although unlike other movies that are made with this theme, like Stand by Me, it seems the main person you watch grow up is Jane. Most “coming of age” movies follow young men. This might be a gender issue that they are trying to expose, by showing that women have just as hard of a time growing up in a world that is meant to be idyllic, but really can repress and crush people.
What is most important to realize from this trailer of American Beauty is that no matter what is placed in front of you, you must “look closer” and figure out what is begging to be portrayed. To start, throughout the trailer, there is not one person of another race, ethnicity, culture, or orientation. The absence of every other kind of person is something to be noticed in itself.
It is clear that the “perfect” society that suburbia tries to attain is not really perfect at all. In fact, it is more repressive than any other habitation. Cities are normally looked down upon as dangerous and threatening, but the repressed, subjugated, overpowered and intimidated society that is suburbia has many more negative ever-lasting effects as correctly pictured in the film trailer for American Beauty. There are family issues, as showed in the case of the Burnham’s- a family filled with deceit, adultery and false pretenses. There are mental disorders that most likely come out of these problems, most severely depression for all three of the Burnham’s. Although it seems Jane has found her way by the end of the movie, by connecting with Ricky, most of the other characters still seem lost in this false world. This trailer brings in crowds with the realistic problems of society and captures their attention because of how relatable this movie seems to be. It is a clear reflection of how suburban society operates, contains, limits and dominates a group of people who just want to live the “American Dream”.