This is the story of an American tragedy, not beauty. It's about despair. Isolation. Hopelessness. Lester and his wife, Carolyn, are both going through mid-life crises. Lester's involves lusting after his daughter Jane's best friend, Angela. Carolyn has an affair with a real estate agent. Jane, meanwhile, falls for her next-door neighbor, Ricky, who has a fetish for voyeurism and death. Like I said. This is the story of an American tragedy.
Positive Elements: A passing comment reminds viewers that life is more than the possessions we accumulate. The filmmakers obviously did not intend to communicate the biblical truth found in Romans 6:23, but it's quite evident here: The wages of sin surely are death. Not that most viewers will make this connection. In fact, the script goes out of its way to keep them from it (after his untimely death, Lester seems to be rewarded for his life of debauchery and sin with peace and understanding). Hardly the truth.
Sexual Content: Twice, moviegoers must endure watching Lester masturbate. His lust for Angela leads to several fantasies of her nude, at times barely covered in rose petals. When he finally tries to bed her, she cooperates, allowing him to undress her before confiding in him that she is a virgin. Upon hearing her revelation and seeing her obvious discomfort and anxiety, he decides not to proceed. Carolyn and her "real estate man" go at it in a motel room. While little nudity is shown in this scene, their sexual activity is prolonged and graphic. It's also implied that Jane and Ricky have sex. Afterward, Ricky's naked rear is shown while Jane videotapes him. Jane strips in front of her bedroom window knowing that Ricky is watching from across the lawn. And that's just the sexual activity. Sexual discussions are equally offensive throughout the film. Frank conversations about intercourse, sexual anatomy and conquest are both lewd and frequent.
Violent Content: Ricky is beaten by his father twice. Lester throws a dish across the room, smashing it against the wall. Carolyn slaps Jane across the face. Lester dies from a bullet to the head (blood splatters across the wall, after which he's shown face down in a growing pool of blood).
Crude or Profane Language: The 20-some uses of the f-word are particularly grating because so many of them are used as harsh slang for sex. About 50 other profanities, including the s-word, add to the oppressiveness of this film. An obscene term for a woman's genitalia is hurled as an insult by Angela. Christ's name is also abused.
Drug and Alcohol Content: Ricky is a big-time drug dealer. He's accumulated tens of thousands of dollars over the past couple of years. He supplies marijuana to Lester on several occasions. He and Lester are both shown getting high. Lester drinks beer several times.
Other Negative Elements: A neighbor couple is gay. Ricky's dad makes hateful, rudely derogatory comments about their behavior. Also, parental role models are atrocious. From Lester's drug-induced euphoria to Ricky's dad's beatings and military-style rule. Respect for elders in non-existent here, not that these despicable adults deserve it.
Summary: It's bad enough when films trade in sexual fantasy for box office dollars. It's worse when that eroticism is directed at a high school cheerleader by a middle-aged man. Sure, he does the right thing and stops himself from sleeping with her, but what kind of message is communicated by his consuming lust? If she is the school "tramp," as she pretends to be, then he frees himself from guilt in his sexual conquest. If, however, she's all dirty talk, but has never actually had sex, then he's "too good of a man" to take away her virginity? Sick logic—that, sadly, isn't even surprising in American Beauty. From drugs and sex to hatred and death, this film revels in sickness. And it attempts to make ugliness attractive.
Just because it's art doesn't make it beautiful.