American Beauty: The Troubled Pursuit of Happiness and Self-Worth
In everything we do, we seek to find happiness and meaning. While they aren’t necessarily what we always find, we strive to find it even if it’s the smallest shred of it. That couldn’t be farther from the truth in the gripping film American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes. The story is about Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a forty-something husband and father who is depressed and has a midlife crisis. Lester is at a point in his life where he feels imprisoned in himself. He feels insignificant to wife Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane Burnham (Thora Birch). Lester meets Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) who is her daughter’s friend, and he becomes infatuated by her. He finally decides to take control of his life by quitting his job, buying a sports car and everything else he’s ever wanted to do. His desire for a younger girl rejuvenates him to want to feel like a young person again, yet this change is only one part of a decadent and problematic lifestyle that is also in evidence among the other characters in the film.
Carolyn has become so materialistic and Lester is beginning to notice that she is not the woman she married. She has changed and is more focused on her success than their marriage. It’s clearly evident when Lester tries to engage with her sexually in the living room. They are lying on the couch kissing but Carolyn is more focused on the beer that is about to spill on the couch. Lester is angry and yells, “it’s just couch!” (Mendes, 1999) but Carolyn is more concerned about how much it costs and what material its made out of. This is not entirely Carolyn’s fault as she is no longer in love with Lester as much as she is to her career. For the most part of their marriage, Lester was depressed and unhappy which Carolyn hated. She seeks a husband that is successful and full of life. Unfortunately, Lester’s awakening came at the wrong time. Carolyn is having an affair with a real estate agent whom she considers more accomplished and more worthy of her affection than Lester. She feels that if she is with a successful man it will reflect on her. She finally realizes that the affair lacks the emotional connection she needs which causes her to spiral out of control.
Jane is an angsty and typical teenager who is mad at the entire world. She feels insignificant because she feels normal and nothing sets her apart from the rest. Her friend Angela further fuels her insecurities by telling her that being ordinary is boring and the worst thing anyone can be. Angela pretends to be well versed in sexual experience and beauty so that people may like her. Her happiness is just a lie meant to hide her “ordinary self”. She hates being ordinary, and she constantly keeps on reminding Jane how ordinary she is. Jane begins to find meaning and a little shred of happiness when she gets romantically involved with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), her neighbor. Ricky is the most genuine character in this story. Despite his father constantly abusing him, he chooses to see the good in the world. He tells Jane that there is nothing wrong with being ordinary. He gives her confidence and self-esteem she needed. Jane benefits most in this story since she’s still young and has a lot of room for growth. She has the chance to live her life better considering what she’s witnessed with her parents. Despite their terrible life together, they get to make a better life for Jane.
Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is another character who is at odds with himself. He is homophobic who constantly abuses his son. In a scene where Frank thinks Lester is having a homosexual affair with his son brings bottled up rage. The audience does not understand this rage until the final moments in the film when he approaches Lester and kisses him. Frank is secretly a homosexual who is in denial. As Ricky notoriously put it describing his father, “Never underestimate the power of denial” (Mendes, 1999). He masks his sexuality by being homophobic thus hiding from his true self.
American Beauty focuses on the terrible realities of families struggling to find the happiness that is otherwise unattainable. This is because of the cultural tendencies of focusing on career paths so much that the family unit becomes drenches in resentment and sadness. Carolyn views Lester as a failure and Lester views Carolyn as someone who cares about things that don’t matter. Lester is in his 40s, and he feels like he just wasted his entire life with a wife who does not appreciate her. The nostalgia effect where Lester has a chance to relive some of the best moments of life even just for a brief moment of happiness to make his life mean something. In the film when he dies, he’s at peace with it because, in the end, he found happiness. The roses in the film signify themes of how these characters are pursuing the idea that being perfect will mean achieving true happiness, but they forget that all the resentment, lies and pain inside cannot be simply eradicated by hiding it. It’s like a beautiful rose, but at its roots, it’s rotting.ReferenceMendes, S. (Director). (1999). American Beauty [Motion Picture]. DreamWorks Pictures,
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