“There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary,”
Angela (Mena Suvari) says in American Beauty. The Academy Award–winning 1999 movie is about many things, but this is one of its strongest messages. The only thing it suggests more is that if you pull back the curtain on even, say, a seemingly perfect everyday suburban family, nobody is ordinary, normal, or boring. As the movie poster for American Beauty says, “Look closer.” Which is what the film also does by giving us a not-so-common behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to be in the real estate world.
But first, the story. In American Beauty, Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a self-described loser. His Martha Stewart–like wife, real estate agent Carolyn (Annette Bening), and his gothy teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), respect him as much as he respects himself: not at all. Lester is a wet blanket and a pushover. He is someone who describes his life as so dull and unsatisfying that he considers himself practically dead. That changes when he meets Jane’s best friend, Angela, and a strong attraction sparks in him. Something awakens, and he begins to change his life around. In doing so, he sets things in motion (for himself and others) that snowball into the dramatic end of the movie.
As the film goes along, it does what its poster promised: it looks closer. It pulls away the layers of its characters. It shows them as more than just stereotypes. In particular, Carolyn — as a real estate agent — proves to be an interesting representation of our trade (more on that later). All characters are complicated and contradictory people, just trying to fulfill their desires by moving past the obstacles they face.
The fact that you can so easily take this message out of American Beauty is credit to Alan Ball (creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood), but also the actors’ extraordinary work. What’s hard to believe about American Beauty isn’t just how good the performances are — it’s how many good performances there are. Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey (both of whom won Oscars for their roles) especially stand out. They single-handedly carry (and pull off) the film’s delicate back-and-forth between being very serious and darkly, maniacally funny.
A big reason American Beauty is so funny is because of how relatable it is. It plays out like a dark vicarious fantasy. Who hasn’t wanted to break a little free from some of the rules and structures of everyday life? Who hasn’t wanted to tell off their boss, or throw a plate of vegetables at a wall when they’re angry? We laugh at the outrageousness of it all because there’s a part of us that wishes we could ditch our inhibitions and do what we want, like these characters. Well, maybe not exactly like these characters. The lesson to take from American Beauty isn’t that you should threaten your boss with blackmail to get a better severance package. But maybe stand up for yourself a little more so you get what you deserve in all aspects of life. And that’s something not only that we can all relate to, but that's also probably good advice we all need to remember now and then.
Of course, for us, American Beauty is more relatable in some ways, given that Annette Bening plays a real estate agent. As was the case with Glengarry Glen Ross, American Beauty isn’t necessarily a nice representation of our trade. That’s partly because nobody is meant to come off looking very good in American Beauty, and partly because the movie is less interested in Carolyn the real estate agent than it is Carolyn the person. Still, while it might easy to write her off as a negative stereotype, it’s worth heeding American Beauty’s advice and look closer.
Stripped of all exaggeration, Carolyn does illustrate kernels of truth. For one, the scene where she prepares one of her listings for an open house shows how much hard work can go into this job. It also emphasizes something that’s true of many jobs: if you’re good at what you do, it looks easy to outsiders. But, of course, nothing is entirely easy. Enjoyable? Worthwhile? Absolutely. But a lot of work goes into making something seem perfect.
A lot of work goes into being a real estate agent in other ways too. Carolyn’s competitiveness and mantras about projecting an image of success (or “I will sell this house today!”) are extreme, but the relatable truth there is this: real estate professionals are often entrepreneurs who have to put in a great deal of effort to be successful and keep themselves motivated. Which is why Carolyn’s eventual “friendship” (at first platonic, later more intimate) with Buddy the Real Estate King (Peter Gallagher) also rings true. Sure, real estate can be competitive, but there still can be a communal sense of mutual understanding — a sense that everyone is in it together.
While Carolyn may be a more relatable real estate professional than the men of Glengarry Glen Ross, there’s one significant thing she shares with them: she never seems to place any importance on the people she’s helping find her homes. She is so obsessed with the success of her career. That’s it. But, as we said with Glengarry, that isn’t to say American Beauty isn’t a great movie. It’s just not one that entirely represents what we do. But, unlike Glengarry, it does — in its way — give you a more behind-the-scenes look at the hard work, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit we put into helping people find their dream homes. Because for most real estate agents, the mantra isn’t “I will sell this house today.” It’s “I will help find someone a home today.”