Often in life we are urged to look past the surface. “Never judge a book by its cover,” so the phrase goes. Two films, American Beauty and (500) Days of Summer use this, the idea of a façade, as the impetus of their stories. In American Beauty, this message is strikingly apparent; the poster for the film even proclaims, “Look Closer”. (500) Days of Summer is not as overt, but still depicts this theme in many ways. The two films may not typically be thought of as similar, as they can’t even be considered the same genre. But genres themselves in this case are just facades. If we look closer, we see that these movies use distinct forms to offer very similar ideas.
To analyze facades in these films it’s best to study each character’s traits, the dialogue, and the mise-en-scéne. American Beauty begins with our protagonist, Lester, voicing-over an aerial shot of his street. Trees line the entire block, acting to shield the street itself, and seeming to forbid our entrance into the story. As such, it’s helpful in this film to become a voyeur (Spector 280). Voyeurism allows us to see the façade that each character possesses, and as a result, how it ruins their emotional state. First, there is Lester. Lester leads an insipid life, living silently under the thumb of his wife. Lester works at an advertising agency, which on the surface means nothing. But what purpose do ads serve? Ads make products seem more appealing, they’re façades. His job reflects his life; he simply goes along with his wife to make his marriage seem normal. As he sits at his desk, his face reflects upon a lifeless blue computer screen. Next to it on the wall, a small sign reads, “Look Closer”. The reflection and the sign seem to be a screaming call for Lester to escape his current life. And, as if his call was answered by the gods, Lester becomes revived by the illusion of freedom and fulfillment embodied by Angela, his daughter’s friend (Hentzi 46). Drawn in by her promiscuous veneer, Lester seeks to change his own by getting fit. Hence, the story becomes one false image chasing another. Angela’s façade is built around her sex appeal. To her, there is nothing worse than being ordinary. Of course, her constitution of ordinary is only based on outer beauty. If it wasn’t evident through her pompous rants about her sexual exploits, this can also be seen in her room. Briefly, we see her wall lined with an endless collage of stereotypically beautiful women. Angela is framed right in the center, signifying that this wall is the same one she has so meticulously created for her own image.
Similar walls are built by other characters, such as Mr. Fitts. Fitts has a cruel demeanor, and despises gays. Raised by the marines, he prides himself in conformity and uniformity. He is very proud of his status, feeling he should mention it to whoever he meets. We see Fitts as this harsh figure for most of the film, only to find out he is actually gay. He is a blatant example of a façade in the movie. Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is another. Carolyn is a real estate agent. Real estate agents, like advertisers, simply create a positive image of the homes they sell. This is illustrated in the scene where she thoroughly cleans a house to prepare it for potential buyers. After all her work, the house remains unsold, and she is distraught. This scene reflected Carolyn. She cleaned all the exterior surfaces of the house thinking it would make it brilliant, but really, the house needed a complete remodeling. Carolyn makes herself appear pretty on the exterior (even vacuuming in heels), but she too needs a makeover. It is interesting to note that she cries in front of closed blinds here, indicating that she is blinded to this fact. This becomes obvious throughout the movie. After Jane’s dance, Carolyn says, “you didn’t even screw up once,” as if any slight external flaw would ruin Jane’s image. Later, Carolyn worries that Lester might spill beer on the couch. Lester replies, “It’s just stuff,” but to Carolyn, this stuff is what makes her feel important. Finally, Carolyn’s garden is filled with American Beauty roses. Her painstaking care for these flowers reflects her attempts to harvest the American dream: to be successful and have a beautiful life (Spector 281). It should come as no surprise that she ultimately hooks up with Buddy Kane, the best façade in the town. “To be successful, one must always project an image of success,” he slyly retorts. But Carolyn is not awed by Kane’s personality; it is his sales numbers that amaze her. Like Lester and Angela, these are just two phony people attracted to each other.
Despite these characters, there are two who see things for their inner beauty, Jane and Ricky. Although Jane is self-conscious at first, considering breast implants, she learns to see herself through Ricky’s eyes (Hentzi 48). Ricky is a voyeur; his camera allows him (and us) to view things objectively, to “look closer”. He finds the most beauty in things that don’t try to be beautiful, like the plastic bag. He similarly finds Jane beautiful, since she is a stark contrast to the egotistical Angela. In one scene he and Jane are naked together, and the camera is attached to the TV, letting Jane see herself. She becomes a voyeur of herself, and sees herself as Ricky does. Although Ricky appears creepy to Jane at first, she realizes he is a confident person with nothing to hide, and she becomes confident, too. Besides Ricky, everyone she knows hides behind a façade. Their relationship contrasts those of Jane’s parents because it hides nothing. A scene which shows this best is when we see them walking down the street, covered on both sides by the tall trees. The aerial shot we first see of the trees makes this community appear orderly and comfortable, but it is superficial (Sarris). Nobody’s life is orderly, and no one is comfortable. Jane and Ricky are the exceptions. Their trueness is accentuated under the false beauty of the canopy, and the funeral procession is too much of a coincidence. Death driving by highlights Jane and Ricky as those who are truly living; everyone else is living as someone they are not.
At the end of the story, nearly everyone’s wall is torn down. Col. Fitts was actually the one thing he supposedly despised the most. Angela was not the sexpert she claimed to be; she was a virgin. Carolyn doesn’t kill Lester because she realizes that she is not a victim of Lester, but of her own habits. And Lester finally sees that even through his transformation, he was still not who he wanted to be. He dies looking at a picture of his family, the most beautiful thing in his life, but also what he neglected. As the camera pans back over the neighborhood, we are left with the promise that one day we will all be able to see the beauty in even the stupidest things. All we need to do is look past the façade.
In (500) Days of Summer, we are presented with a similar message. This movie is the antithesis of most romantic comedies, since it doesn’t have the customary happily-ever-after ending. Instead, it seems to take a stab at these kinds of movies, giving a realistic portrayal of young people navigating the murky waters of heterosexual attraction (Scott). In the beginning we learn that as a kid, our central character Tom was highly influenced by such movies and music of the 1960’s. These media often depicted fabled romances and sexual relations. However, interpreting them as being an accurate reflection of reality can have serious implications for adolescents’ perceptions of the world (Johnson 353). Viewing such positive images repeatedly can severely skew one’s outlook on romance (Johnson 354). This was the case for Tom. The film follows Tom’s love for Summer, and how he realizes that his view on life and love needs to change.
Tom sees Summer for the first time at his job, a greeting card company. Much like American Beauty, jobs are used to reflect the characters. What purpose do greeting cards serve? They put words into people’s mouth and prevent true words from being spoken. They are verbal facades. It is worthy to note that his boss calls Tom, “one of the good ones.” In effect, he is talented at creating a beautiful facade. When Summer appears, she is the girl of Tom’s dreams. At least she looks like it. When it turns out that they both like The Shins, Tom concludes it could only be one thing: fate. As a believer in true love, soul mates and other touchstones of greeting card mythology, this mindset proves to harm him (Scott). Summer, who grew up with divorced parents, looks at love differently. There are many scenes which illustrate this difference.
First, there is the IKEA scene, where Tom and Summer march merrily around the home furnishings, pretending they live there. To Tom, this must seem like the stories created in his favorite movies and songs. Stories that have only one outcome: a life together. But Summer makes it clear here that she isn’t looking for anything serious. Still, Tom is determined to place a label on their relationship. It is as if without the label, their relationship would mean nothing to Tom; it seems he can only truly enjoy it with that façade.
Some other scenes show how differently Tom and Summer view things. In the first they are looking through an art gallery. While looking at avant-garde paintings, Summer exclaims, “In a way it speaks so much by saying so little,” to which Tom replies, “I feel the same way.” Once again we see how Summer can see within things, and past the surface. Tom simply agrees with Summer but can’t truly see the inner beauty of the paintings. This is reiterated when Tom and Summer visit a record store. Summer explains that her favorite Beatle is Ringo, which baffles Tom. Summer tells him it’s because no one likes Ringo. Like Ricky, Summer can see past natural beauty; she sees beauty in things that are often overlooked.
After the record store, Tom takes Summer on a tour of architecture. We learn that Tom wanted to be an architect, which is no surprise given his outlook on life. Tom wants to construct beautiful facades. Tom looks in awe as they stroll around the city. Summer doesn’t understand it as well; she sees inner beauty better. So we get a view from inside the building looking out at them, and what goes on inside? Business. Nothing gorgeous like the façade would suggest. The scene ends on a park bench with Tom explaining how he would make a better skyline. “You could maximize light capacity here…” he goes on to Summer, obviously being over her head. A similar scenario is created later between Tom and his sister Rachel. The two are sitting on a bench, but this time, Rachel is the one explaining things to Tom, and Tom is the one lost. She explains that just because Tom thinks Summer is “the one”, it doesn’t make it true. At this time, this doesn’t make sense to Tom; he still can only see the surface of his relationship.
When Tom and Summer watch The Graduate, we truly see their differences. Early in the film, the narrator mentions that Tom misinterpreted this movie as a kid. Now we see that he likely is still misinterpreting it. We see Summer crying, and Tom completely confused. Why would she be crying, Ben and Elaine are finally together; happily-ever-after right? Obviously not. The end of The Graduate ends with a look of uncertainty in our lovers eyes about their future. Although they are together, they’re not sure that it is right. Summer feels the same way about her relationship with Tom, but Tom only can see the outer shell of their love.
Ultimately, Summer marries someone else. Highlighted by a rapid descent down a spiral staircase, Tom loses his desire to live. When he finally comes to, there is another scene with Rachel. Reminiscent of American Beauty, she urges Tom to, “look again” at his time with Summer. Now he sees that it was just as awkward as it was good. It wasn’t meant to be. He realizes the falsehood of pop culture, and quits the card company to pursue architecture. At this one might say he is still going to be creating facades. But the final scene tends to show how his outlook on life has changed. The building where he has his interview is very post-modern; the elevator gears and cables are all visible, and there are very little coverings on any of the fixtures. This stresses that Tom has begun to see past the façade. He will understand that architecture isn’t just about the outside, but the inside, as well. When he finally meets Autumn, he says he had never seen her before. Autumn says, “you must not have been looking.” Like the change from summer to autumn, Tom has changed and can now see everything in a new light.
Look closer. Look again. Sometimes life isn’t what it seems to be. Through the use of extensive reflexivity between the characters and their surroundings, American Beauty and (500) Days of Summer emphasize this idea. Where American Beauty gives us a dark comedy outlook on this message, (500) Days of Summer gives us the romantic comedy spin. Although these films are largely for entertainment, they both effectively teach valuable lessons, as well. When viewing a film, one cannot simply take it for face value. Much like in life, there is always much more to discover when you look past the façade.
Hentzi, Gary. “American Beauty.” Film Quarterly 54.2 (2000): 46-50. Print.
Johnson, Kimberly, and Bjarne Holmes. “Contradictory Messages: A Content Analysis of Hollywood-Produced Romantic Comedy Feature Films.” Communication Quarterly 57.3 (2009): 352-73. Print.
Sarris, Andrew. “Married With Cynicism, Until Death Do Them Part.” The New York Observer. Sept. 1999. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. .
Scott, A. O. “Love at the Greeting Card Company: Best Wishes on Your Breakup.” The New York Times. 17 July 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. .
Spector, Judith A., and Katherine V. Tsiopos-Willis. “The Aesthetics of Materialism in Alan Ball’s American Beauty.” The Midwest Quarterly 48.2 (2007): 279-96. Print.