For all its acid commentary on suburban life and the dynamics of family apathy, Sam Mendes’ 1999 American Beauty is less about social norms and wasted relationships and far more about an inherent contradiction within the American dream and the ideals of the nation.
Lester, American Beauty‘s narrator and protagonist, feels he’s stuck in a rut. He’s got a normal, ordinary and quasi-insignificant life. His family is pulling apart; his wife despises him; his daughter hates him full-time. His office job pays the bills and has helped his family build a comfortable suburban life, but he hates it with all his guts. No wonder Lester is a miserable guy. Perhaps, many men identify with Lester’s predicament. Should we all feel pathetic? Should we all buy a 1970 Pontiac Firebird?
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) lives in a typical white-picket fence house with his neurotic, estate agent, wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Frustrated with life, he decides to resign from his job, and while doing it, Lester blackmails his boss to grant him a generous severance package. Free from the corporate world, Lester smokes pot, works out and becomes infatuated with his daughter’s best friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). In the end, in a sub-plot that involves his daughter’s boyfriend Rick Fitts (Wes Bentley), Lester is shot dead by his father, Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper).
The film implies that Lester is a loser and that is an assumption deduced from a paradigm; from the set of ideals that govern American society. Live life to the full; fight for your dreams; find the things that make you happy. All good principles to live for, but then what happened to Lester happens to all of us: life gets on the way. Anyway, what really is the American dream? If asked, most people would probably mention freedom, upward mobility and hard work. Said in a different way, it simply is ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ put into practice.
..Always Leave your Job on Amicable Terms…
As the idea implies true freedom (in contrast to an ideal enshrined in law, but denied to the people in real terms) I presume that America’s immense territory plays a part in people’s imagination. To be able to start afresh in a different place, far from where one left one’s frustrations, has always been part of the imaginary of the American people. In this light, Lester is now living the dream. He has achieved freedom through his severance package and is pursuing ambitions accumulated in a lifetime.
However, who can deny that, in fact, Lester was already living the dream by the time he resigned from his job? Even though he feels he was in a coma for 20 years and admits to feel like a loser, Lester achieved a lifestyle many Americans dream of. Sure, he was not happy or fulfilled, but materially he must be seen as one of the winners. If that is plausible as an explanation then how to reconcile contradictory traits such as freedom and conformity, social justice and economic insecurity, all which representing aspects of the concept?
It is magnificent how the film depicts the change in Lester’s situation in an ambiguous way. While cheering every little victory he gains, every step closer to his true self, we simultaneously understand the irresponsible and shallow frame of mind. At the beginning he sounds like a disillusioned and narcissist man who we might actually hate. But by the end his perspective and preoccupations guide us and we end up caring about him. And that’s the midlife crisis as the embodiment of the American dream. Lester Burnham’s desire for Angela is a commentary on the flaws of different generations in America today.
Generations which all fall for a flawed interpretation of the American dream. It is Angela who sums up exactly what many people actually desire nowadays: ‘…there’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.’ In a film full of weirdos, Rick is seen by her as the worst of them all. And if his habit of filming everything and everyone is meant to symbolise the audience, like a voyeur, peeking into these people’s lives because our own aren’t worthy investigating, then we are all like Lester prior to his awakening: like in a coma.
But it is Carolyn (probably the least sympathetic character in the film) who will have the last word, with the most powerful meaning. After being busted by Lester at the fast food restaurant she identifies the source of our unhappiness: ‘In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.’ It is this striving for perfection, this idealised version of the ideal that ends up curtailing our chances to be happy. For the American dream embodies two greater concepts – freedom and equality – which can, and usually do, contradict each other.