Spirituality and Mediocrity in American Beauty
“I had always heard your entire life flashes before your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all. It stretches on forever like an ocean of time. For me it was lying on my back at boy scout camp watching falling stars. And yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined our street. Or my grandmother’s hands and the way her skin seemed like paper. And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand-new Firebird. And Janie. And Janie. And Carolyn… I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold onto it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid, little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about I’m sure but don’t worry. You will someday.”
In 1999's American Beauty, our protagonist's very first assertion proves true in the end: “My name is Lester Burnham… I’m 42 years old and in less than a year I’ll be dead.” From the beginning of the story he, as our narrator, seems unfazed by this. Lester gives us little time to consider his imminent death before introducing us to his family: his wife, Carolyn, and their daughter Jane. They are a mostly typical American family living in a typical American suburb. Lester’s job at the magazine is downsizing, Carolyn is having trouble selling and dealing with competition in the local housing market, and Jane is “a pretty typical teenager,” according to Lester. “Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass but I don’t want to lie to her.” He goes on to say, “Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right. I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this... sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back.”
The choice to have Lester narrate his life posthumously serves the story on many levels. Not least of which is a constant reminder of the finality of life: his own, and the final nature of all things. His mentioning of Jane’s issues that are not “going to pass” shows us that even as adults, he and Carolyn don’t have any more answers than she does, and they are probably just as lost if not more. They may only have more experience with coping despite both of them noticeably being on the verge of a breakdown. These choices add an urgency to the discovery of what’s important to our characters. They’ve all lost touch with what made them feel alive, and they are all running out of precious time.
When we first see Lester at work, he’s having a forced phone conversation with someone who has repeatedly been ignoring him. Ignoring him to the point where he has to ask the secretary on the other line if the person he’s trying to contact even exists. After he ends this pointless call, he’s brought into his new supervisor’s office for a meeting. This quickly goes bad, as his supervisor tells Lester that the company is “looking to cut corners.” Lester jumps to the conclusion that this means he’s getting fired. He can’t hold back admitting that he knows a superior, “Craig” wasted $50,000 of company money paying for sex. This is the beginning of his breakdown, and his new boss can tell he’s tapped into something unexpected from this mild mannered, self proclaimed “loser.” Lester goes on to say that he’s been writing for the magazine for 14 years. This new guy “Brad,” has only been here for about a month, as if to tell him he doesn’t quite know what he’s wading into, with the magazine or with Lester himself. It's not until their next meeting, that Lester tells him in a company mandated job description, “My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge and at least once a day retiring to the men’s room where I can jerk off fantasizing about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble hell.” Though this letter and blackmail somehow succeed in getting him a salary without work, I’m sure people would agree that there are many bosses who deserve some form of this letter and unfortunately will never receive it. Lester leaves the office, and immediately picks up a new job working the counter at a fast food restaurant because he wants “the least amount of responsibility possible.”
It’s not only Lester who has been missing something. Carolyn is as well. Anyone can all relate to focusing too hard on trivial things. We all want to make the best of life and it's easy to get lost in our scheme. When Lester introduces us to Jane, we see her look over a spreadsheet cataloging quite a bit of saved money, but we also see that she seems to be researching and saving for cosmetic surgery. The first thing we see Carolyn say to Jane is to passive aggressively ask her if she’s “trying to look unattractive,” and that if she has, she’s “succeeded.” We only learn later, that Carolyn believes deeply in projecting an “image of success” at all times, to influence actual success. Not only is this important to her, but getting her way affirms this philosophy as an acceptable one. Lester accuses her of tearing down their neighbor’s sycamore only for Carolyn to reply that “a substantial portion of the root structure was on our yard! How can you call it ‘their sycamore?’” Projecting this image and lifestyle on others is clearly not healthy for her or anyone else, as she’d rather be “right” than happy. Jane is a perfectly “normal” teenage girl and doesn’t need to look however Carolyn believes “successful” looks.
A major flaw in Carolyn’s philosophies for success is that her entire definition of success has become dependent on work. We get a glimpse of her work day competing in the real estate market, losing out to a local “Real Estate King” while trying her absolute hardest to work with what she’s got. After meticulously cleaning the entire property and continuing to affirm that she will “sell this house today,” prospective buyers begin to arrive, and we see how little this ends up meaning. The day ends with Carolyn not having made the sale, despite what she repeatedly told herself, which leads to her showing genuine emotion for the first time. When she realizes she’s crying and can’t hold back, she begins to slap herself and call herself a weak baby. This snaps her out of reality and back into her best laid plans. She forces a harsh smile through tears to reaffirm her ability to present herself. Her scheme is causing her to lose her grip on reality, with the image of success being all that is holding her together.
Jane must suffer through both her parents crises while dealing with her own internal battle with self image and confidence. Her relationship with the neighbor’s son, Ricky, is helpful and needed, but progress becomes hindered by Lester’s newfound obsession with Jane’s only friend, Angela. His desire to completely change his life is accompanied by this fairly disturbing side effect. It doesn’t help that Angela also treats Jane like a bit of a punching bag, consistently making her feel small, either purposefully or through her own lack of self awareness. Though this is obviously upsetting to Jane, neither she nor Lester have the audience’s perspective to realize that Lester isn’t really infatuated with this teenage girl, (real as it seems) he’s more infatuated with freedom and the lust for life that comes with youth. Both are things that he and Carolyn have completely lost and can only yearn for at this point. Unfortunately for Jane, Angela becomes the focal point of Lester’s yearning, until he inevitably realizes this for himself.
Through all of the Burnhams’ struggles to connect with one another, new neighbors arrive at the property next door and we are given a different side to these issues. The Fitts family is Col. Frank Fitts USMC, his wife Barbara, and their son Ricky. Frank is a violent man fixated on structure and discipline, who frequently clashes with his son (physically and otherwise). Ricky seems to mostly be able to handle him, despite a complete unwillingness to retaliate against his father with violence. He mostly says what he knows his Father wants to hear to avoid confrontation, so that he can continue to live with his family and keep them together. Ricky tells Jane when they eventually become close, that he almost killed a fellow student after the “kid made a crack about [his] haircut.” It's only now that Ricky has the perspective to realize his behavior wasn’t unrelated to the beating Frank had given him the night before. “Wow, you must really hate him,” Jane says upon hearing this. Ricky claims his father isn’t an evil man, and we can tell that even though he wants to leave, he stays to do right by his parents.
Barbara’s relationship with Frank is the antithesis of this. She doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear, she doesn’t tell him anything. She’s almost always silent, likely due to years of physical or emotional abuse from Frank. We really only see her cook, clean, and stare off deeply into space. Towards the end of the story, we see Ricky tell her, “I wish things would have been better for you.” Her character has always represented the horror of the woman’s role in the 1950’s vision of the American household (a truly disturbing expectation to be unwillingly subscribed to). We don’t quite know why Frank is the way he is until the very end, but we can only assume it has to do with his own harsh upbringing and experiences in the military. Their family life and issues aren’t any less common than the Burnham’s in America, though they are much more severe. Despite this, their relationships and personalities shows that leading a life focused around fulfilling the expectations of others will only yield unhappiness and regret.
Though Lester does die in less than a year as he states in the very beginning, he is provided the perspective to give him one last smile in the eternity of his final second. His last moment is well spent, reminiscing happily over a picture of his wife and daughter. Ricky, having gone through a life changing break years ago, has been attempting to appreciate beauty wherever he finds it, to see the “life behind things.” He admits to Jane that he’d once filmed a homeless woman who froze to death. When she asks why, he responds, “Because it was amazing… When you see something like that, it’s like God looking right at you just for a second, and if you’re careful you can look right back.” He finds the blood-soaked room where Lester was killed, and sees a moment of similar beauty. A moment to look back at God. He looks into Lester’s eyes and where he had previously seen the sadness of the woman who froze to death, he now sees Lester’s smile and admires it. Ricky shares in the moment, smiling back, acknowledging Lester’s true happiness and fulfillment despite the gruesome scene.
By the end of the ‘90s, Americans had been considering the effect of office and cubicle culture on mental health for years. It's worth noting that Fight Club, Office Space, and American Beauty all came out in the same year: 1999. They are very different movies that all share a similar warning: a passionless life and a meaningless job can absolutely damage your relationship with reality, and are just as easy to fail at as pursuits that we care about. People rightly fear falling into the dreary, materially-obsessed existence that these stories try to dramatize. All three of them show the audience an extreme response to the depression that accompanies being lost in a life of your own making. Slogging through a job you not only hate but can’t progress in. A daily routine that has no joy or end in sight. Work, Eat, Sleep, Die. Breaking away from this consistent mediocrity that is celebrated in America is necessary to keep in touch with yourself and those around you. The Fitts and Burnham families give us a glimpse into the terror and hilarity of these fears, as well as the consequences of forgoing a simplistic happiness and thankfulness for small beauties to adhere to the norms of American society. Seeing their stories intertwine, reminds me that I should always feel nothing but gratitude for my stupid, little life.
Pierce Allen is a local musician and movie enthusiast living in Beacon, NY. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and vanilla mixed together.