American Beauty: The American Tragedy?

        In life, everyone must make choices. Choices give individual the freedom to decide upon the path to which they will follow. Since its beginnings, the film making industry has focused on showing the direct relationship between the choices that people make and the resulting consequences they must face. In the movie American Beauty, directed in 1999 by Sam Mendes, the character of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) must make many important choices that could either lead to his ultimate happiness, or draw him further into his despair.

        In the movie American Beauty, it is evident that Lester Burnham is in a state of despair. Lester's dull and monotonous voice introduces the audience to his daily routine of life. When Lester declares plain and simply, "This is my neighborhood, this is my street, this is my life," he exposes the lifelessness and unhappiness to which he has become accustomed. The hopeless tone that Lester has set continues when he cynically comments, "jerking off in the shower will be the high point of my day." He realizes his family life is no better when he becomes aware that both his disdainful wife (Annette Bening) and his troubled daughter (Thora Birch) consider him "a gigantic loser." It is easy to recognize and understand Lester's disheartenment through analysis and symbolic car scene. In this scene, Lester sits slouched down in the back seat with a look of emptiness, while his daughter Jane sits up front, next to his wife Caroline, who is driving the car. The symbolism is shown through Carolyn driving the car, as she drives the family (especially Lester). She has evolved into the decision-maker and leader of the Burnham family. Sitting in the backseat, Lester avoids further conflict with his wife, leading him to become an even unhappier and more desperate person. It is understandable why Lester feels like a sedated visitor in his own life. It is also easy to empathize with Lester when he states that he feels "in many ways already dead."

        For Lester, his life at work is nothing better than his life at home. After fourteen years on the job, Lester is asked by an efficiency expert at work to write a memo justifying his position. This requires making the first of several choices, which will ultimately affect his future happiness. Should he justify his job and continue to provide for his family or choose freedom and a new life? To answer this question, the audience must examine and understand Lester's status as an employee in his work. Lester's job is not vital, nor is it an important component of the company. This is obvious by observing the large room he shares with dozens of co-workers. The cubical Lester had is identical to the dozens of cubicles filling the room. Like all other cubicles, the workspace the employees share is small and confined. Looking at Lester's workspace, the audience can identify the bland and uniform area that Lester has faced on a daily basis. Lester is considered by others to be an "expendable employee," having a job that is not required by the company therefore wasting the company's money. Just as Lester is considered an unnecessary employee, his job has become meaningless to him. Lester has concluded he could not find a reason to justify his job; because his job has had no meaning to him or his employer. If he decides to justify his job, Lester would continue a meaningless life at work and continue to be "a whore for the advertising industry." If Lester does not change now he would fall into a deeper state of despair feeling as if he were to sell "his soul" to "work for Satan" just because "it is more convenient that way." Lester, considering himself "an ordinary guy with nothing to lose," chooses to quit his job as advertising writer. Upon his leaving he seeks out a new job "with the least responsibility" and is hired at "Mr. Smiley's" a local fast food restaurant, which he is happy about. Making the choice to quit his job and work in a fast food restaurant finally brings Lester his chance to embrace happiness. It symbolizes his transition from a life in which Lester was "locked up"; to a new life in which Lester is now free to control his future.

        Dreaming of a life, which is out of our grasps, is a common thing--so common that just about all people, at some point in their own life wish that they were someone else or that they could in some way be greater than they already are. No one feels this way more than Lester Burnham. Early on in the movie, the viewer is introduced to Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) the stunning best friend of Lester's daughter, Jane. The moment Lester that lays eyes on this "beauty, he falls "into a spell of intense infatuation." This is proven to the viewer when he later tells Angela that he has "wanted her since the first time he saw her." As the movie progresses, Lester repeatedly dreams about making love to this girl that is not even half his age, and this certainly has an effect on his daughter. During the climax of the movie, Lester's fantasy of Angela becomes a reality where both he and Angela make sexual advances towards each other. At the last minute Lester's conscious gets the best of him when Angela makes the announcement that she has "never done this before," almost as if he has had an epiphany, and in turn he has made the moral choice. From a symbolic standpoint, Angela has symbolized his dream of a perfect life, a life where everything is simple and everyone is beautiful. The thought that sleeping with this girl would bring him these things has been found to be a false promise, and he realizes that true happiness comes from the moral decisions that people make in their life, not the pleasures that they indulge in to relieve their daily problems.

        Throughout the movie Lester is faced with numerous conflicts, in which he has to make choices that will change the fate of his family as a whole. When the movie starts, the Burnham family seems like the typical, boring American family; but the underlying problems are pulling them apart. As the father and husband in this situation, it is partially up to him as to what he lets influence his family. He is growing farther and farther apart from his wife, his relationship with his daughter is almost "nonexistent," and his personal happiness is at risk. For the majority of the movie, the viewer sees Lester as taking things into his own hands and almost ignoring what the effects will be on his family; but, as he finds himself making these decisions, one almost sees a regression, which in the end, will make things worse than they already are. When Lester finally comes to this realization, he sees that Jane does not actually "hate" him and that his wife is not fully to blame for what has happened. In realizing these things, he almost is able to find a new part of himself; a part that he never knew existed. The viewer can see these changes when he turns to Angela and asks, "How's Jane?" This is the first time in the movie in which it is apparent that he wants to know his own family and is just working out how to go about doing it. But it also allows Lester to be happy, happy for Jane to experience the "best thing he once had" a true loving relationship with Carolyn. Lester finds himself not sad that he is now missing that loving relationship, but happy that he got the chance to experience it at one point. By the end of the movie, Lester actually seems sincerely happy in his thoughts, in his mind and in his life. This is the happiness that he has been searching for all along.

        The discovery of happiness and the extinction of despair are two of the greatest feats known to humans. All people choose which of the two will ultimately rule their life, but sometimes life itself can get in the way. Lester Burnham is a man with limits, a man without the freedom to know his self, but with the ability to overcome these boundaries. Throughout this movie Lester is taken down a path to which self-satisfaction is the roadblock and morality is the hidden passage. For some the choice will never be able to be made, but to Lester, life is much too beautiful to ignore the possibilities.

Kelli Fitzpatrick

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