The idea of the American Dream is just that: A dream. We can hold the idea tight next to our hearts, but in the end, we are all walking straight ahead with blinders on, attempting very hard not to glimpse the peripheral of a world crashing down around us. If we gaze beyond our myopic scope, we empty Pandora’s Box, and all is meaningless. Might as well walk blindly through traffic. In the effort to compile a list of all the films associated with the theme of the American Dream, I came up completely shortsighted on films that had an upbeat message or a happy ending. It then made perfect sense. In order to make great cinema, you must be honest with your audience. And giving them a film about the American Dream with a happy ending would be an outright falsehood.
So what exactly defines the American dream? Well, in people’s minds, America is a magical place where all your dreams will come true. Were even the smallest of men can achieve a life to be proud of. That hard work and suffering will always lead to a better life in the end. The end! That’s the problem. In real life, that storybook ending turns out to be more of a Grimm fairytale. There is, of course, the fantasy exception: Everyone wants to be a rock star! Musician bio-pics have a history of making good on the American promise. Some recent ones include: Walk the Line (2005), Crazy Heart (2009), 8 Mile (2002), and Almost Famous (2000).
Other happy American films tend to revel in the worst America has to offer. Thank You For Smoking (2005) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) unabashedly roll around in their own filth while winking at you. A character from the former film stuffs his face with cheese-covered apple pie, and when told his choice of delicacy is disgusting, he simply retorts proudly “it’s American.”
Hmm…What else is joyful? Weddings! One could argue that My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) depicts the American dream, however loosely. L.A. Story (1991) could also be a contender, although it’s more concerned with the Hollywood dream, as witnessed by its Hollywood ending. The Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) fits the American Dream almost perfectly, even with all of its quirks. I can only think of one other film, but it’d be a bad list if I could only come up with one. So, without further ado, a list of 20 films that display aspects of the American Dream (one with a happy ending):
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) You could pick any film by Michael Moore and have an example of the death of the American Dream. He’s taken on the 2ndamendment (Bowling for Columbine (2002)), the 2000 election (Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)), the insurance companies (Sicko (2007)) and, as in this film, American corporation’s stranglehold over consumers with his scathing documentaries.
Citizen Kane (1941) From life to death, we watch the American Dream being realized by its title character. Money can buy you an empire to stand on, but it can’t buy you love or peace.
Revolutionary Road (2008) A young married couple in 1950s America seem to have the perfect life. The husband has a good job, the wife is good with their two children, and all is right with the world. Unknown to their neighbors, their lives are troubled, and they decide to move to Paris to fix it all. The only person who gets them thinking deeply is a troubled son of their realtor, whose strong words end up destroying the couple’s world.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) CNN has been playing this film off and on, which depicts the rise and fall of Enron, but also presents the rise and fall of its leading CEOs, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. It’s amazing that a company could actually make money by endangering people’s lives. At least this film ends with a few of the players in jail.
Inside Job (2010) Last year’s Academy Award winner for best documentary, this film lays out some very good reasons of why we are in the current economic situation that we’re in. A study of the loopholes in the American Dream, we realize while watching this that the odds of landing the American Dream are a craps shoot with constantly thinning odds.
Quiz Show (1994) Representing the end of innocents of American TV quiz shows, Robert Redford’s film watches the destruction of wholesome americana. Sure, it’s only a quiz show, but the film certainly makes it seem like this was the first time that Americans were deceived. When the jig was up, we where more conscious of where we placed our trust.
Elephant (2003) A pastiche of American school shootings, Gus Van Sant took home the Palme D’or at Cannes for this difficult but quiet film. Although it is arguably about what bullying or the closet does to people, it is also about the toxic waste the American Dream pumps out in its wake.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) An immigrant woman who is going blind works constantly so she can afford eye surgery for her son. Overworked, she daydreams that her life is a musical to make the days seems shorter. She gets caught up in a neighbor’s demise, and her dreams get crushed. All the while she tries to keep the despair at bay, even singing on her way to the gallows.
American Beauty (1999) A sad man who hates is life becomes reinvigorated when hit by a mid-life crisis. He begins to throw off the shackles that the American Dream locked him in. He gets all he dreamed of, sort of.
House of Sand and Fog (2003) Home is where the heart is. Unless the county mistakenly puts yours up for sale. A depressed woman is wrongfully evicted from her house while a proud and stubborn man moves his family into it. So begins a long battle for property that ends in tragedy.
Part 2 is continued here.