Happiness in elusive and perhaps even impossible for the characters of American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999). From a cleverly passive viewpoint the film presents characters that should be, at least on the surface, happy. However, as the film illustrates time and time again, nothing can be taken at face value. Everything, from the pleasant suburban neighborhood that the film takes place in to the broken and dysfunctional people that inhabit it, are much more than they appear to be at first. And while not all of these initially hidden undertones are entirely convincing or even plausible, they all serve the greater goal of promoting a world where nothing can be simply interpreted. Everything must be analyzed and reassessed in American Beauty, and the end result is the conclusion that none of the characters in the film can thrive on anything less than dysfunction. When the upper-middle class suburbanites of the film are not clashing with each other, airing grievances, and committing infidelities or illegal activities, they are all perfectly miserable. It is only by way of acting out of their social boundaries that the characters of American Beauty can experience happiness, but the film is quick to reinforce that fact that none of these actions are sustainable, nor should they be condoned.
For Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) happiness is nothing but a memory when the film begins. He is stuck in a dead marriage, unable to communicate with his daughter, and his only break from his domestic life is at a job where he is unappreciated and expendable. No escape is in sight for Lester, and his only distraction comes in the form of his newfound infatuation with his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari). This envisioned relationship is both unacceptable and outright illegal, but for Lester it provides a sense of excitement and even a possibility of escaping the life that he hates. But he does not pursue Angela by what would be considered conventional means, as Lester instead chooses to live like he would were he still a brash teenager in high school. He quits his office job and starts flipping burgers, he sells his “adult” car and buys a Pontiac Firebird, and he stops caring about his marriage. All of his actions are understandably absurd, and none of them are committed with any sort of eye towards the long-term consequences, but this is the underlying nature that Lester seeks to follow. “…I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose” Lester states as he quits his job. For him, his goal is all that matters and whatever comes after that is irrelevant.
While Lester’s method of living life recklessly is indeed the most extreme behavior of the film, it is far from the only one that should be mentioned. On almost the opposite end of the spectrum is Lester’s daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). Jane’s own “extreme” behavior is her relationship from the socially inept boy next door Ricky (Wes Bentley). While this may seem rather docile compare to her criminally inclined father, and indeed her actions are not nearly as reckless, it should be noted that Ricky is far from what is often considered to be a traditionally safe person. Introduced to the audience and to Jane as someone who shamelessly films anything and everyone around him, Ricky is soon revealed to also be dealing drugs and possibly even inclined to murder if someone were to ask nicely. But Jane is drawn to him nonetheless, mostly because of the reckless behavior of her father, but also because of the counter pressure coming from Angela, whom considers Ricky a “freak.” Though the film initially portrays them as best friends, it is soon revealed that Jane tolerates Angela’s behavior more than indulges it, and Jane eagerly follows the first chance to break away from her. Jane’s long-term outlook is much more responsible than any of the other self-indulging individuals around her, though the plan of running away with Ricky and living off drug money can only sound relatively stable when considered in contrast to Lester’s new lifestyle.
Between Lester and Jane is the figure of Carolyn (Annette Bening). Shown to be an efficient but not entirely successful real estate agent, Carolyn can barely tolerate Lester before his return to teenage form and she rightly cannot stand for his indulgences later in the film. Carolyn is not an exception to the rule of American Beauty either. Happiness can be sought after but there is not a long-term solution for it. For Carolyn, her shot at happiness comes in the form of an affair with a fellow realtor, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). But unlike Lester’s calculated approach to obtaining a goal, Carolyn’s actions are more of an end than a means to one. There is not an ultimate goal for Carolyn explicitly stated in the film, though it can easily be interpreted that her feelings for Buddy have existed long before her husband chose to pursue a high school student. This does not lessen the impact of Carolyn’s actions on herself or those around her, but it does allow her to be portrayed in much less sinister fashion than her husband.
But even as the characters of American Beauty begin to indulge their various wants, the film is sure to remind the audience that none of them can be happy in the end. Lester is the bar by which everyone else’s actions are gauged against, as his are the most extreme and intricate. All three of the Burnhams’ pursuits are framed against each other in their respective infancies. As Lester quits his job while blackmailing his employer, the film cuts to not only Carolyn indulging in her first fling with Buddy, but also to Jane as she walks home with Buddy. For American Beauty, none of the respective actions taken by any of theses three characters are any better or worse than each other. They are all breaks form the societal roles that these characters have found themselves in and have been following their entire lives, but while their escapes are shown to produce happiness in their respective partakers, none of them can be seen as acceptable because they are framed against the obviously wrong actions of Lester. While there is nothing inherently wrong with Lester quitting his job or beginning to get in shape, his end goal is sleeping with a high school girl and so all of his actions must be looked at in this context.
In contrast to the Burnhams are the Fitts, the next-door neighbors whom are more visibly unstable but at the same time less caustic. While the Fitts, composed of Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), his wife Barbara (Allison Janney), and their son Ricky are all broken and dysfunctional in their own ways, the film does not show any of their initial breaks, with a lone exception. But unlike the Burhams, the dysfunctions of the Fitts are shown to have endured for an extended period of time. And while the film does show the conclusion of their family as their respective insecurities and grievances come to a head, it does also offer commentary on how they have been able to remain together for so long. “Never underestimate the power of denial,” Ricky states in reference to his father and his beliefs, but in the end denial is something that cannot always be indefinitely sustained. Col Fitts is in denial about practically every aspect of his life, from the activities of his son to his own sexuality, and in the end this leads to a tragic skewing of reality that results in harm to those around him.
Denial is something that Lester indulges in as well. In the end, the film frames his actions as an extended form of denial, one that he is only snapped out of when he realizes that his perceptions have been incorrect. Refusing to sleep with Angela following her revelation about her virginity, Lester is snapped back to reality as he realizes exactly what he has become. He suddenly sees himself not as the teenager he has envisioned himself to be, but as an adult that is trying to be with someone that is the same age as his daughter. Following this, he behaves in a much more fatherly and appropriate manner towards Angela, but this change of heart and attempted redemption is too little too late for him. His lone age-appropriate action cannot redeem Lester for his previous attempts, and the film understands this, as it does not allow him to fully explore his new lease of life. Lovingly viewing a picture of his family, albeit an idealized one of a time long passed, he is shot in the back of the head by Col Fitts. Lester dies just as he realizes the long-term futility of his actions, and the film frames his death against the reactions of those around him to hearing the fatal gunshot, as well as their reactions upon seeing his fate. Ricky is just as fascinated with his death as any of the others he has seen, Jane is understandably horrified, and Carolyn is shown to be in tears and also afraid. She hugs the clothes of her now-dead husband, longing for a man that has not existed in a long time.
American Beauty does not seek to allow its characters to extend their indulgences past their logical courses. Instead, it frames the death of Lester, whom has indulged the most by far, against the respective indulgences of his family members and the family next door. Following the earlier comparison as Lester quit his job, the actions of Jane and Carolyn, as well as Col Fitts, are implied by the film to be terminal as well. This is not to say that all of these characters will end up dead as Lester has, but their societal breaks cannot be seen as something that the film states can and will last. The characters in the film can obtain happiness, but American Beauty states that it can only be done so in a fleeting sense. The only escape for these characters is death, as is experienced by Lester, and his death allows him to commentate on the goings on of the world he lived in. But this change in perspective does not cause Lester to state that he should have taken a different path, which might have resulted in a fate other than death for him. Lester does not regret his actions, no matter how deplorable they were, because they have allowed him to achieve his original goal: escaping his dead-end life. Death is Lester’s only mean of permanent escape, and American Beauty does not allow for any other paths to be seen as possible.