The beauty in the american dream
The movie American Beauty shows what can happen when one achieves the American dream and it is not what many would expect. The director Sam Mendes shows us what we sacrifice in our lives when we achieve the American dream because life tends to go stale within the confines of a picket-fence, consumerist, and career-driven version of the American dream (journal). The main character Lester Burnham played by Kevin Spacey is a man who is growing older and is unloved by his daughter; ignored by his wife and unnecessary at work because their life is so mundane and consumed by the American dream. American Beauty displays the family as trapped by the ideology of the American dream and the need to find balance and escape from the reality of the American dream, breaking away from the norm; the movie is a tale of liberation, to live with satisfaction after you achieve what is considered the American dream.
To summarize the film, the main character Lester Burnham is a 42 year old father, husband and advertising executive. His wife Carolyn is an unsuccessful realtor and his 16 year old daughter Jane is unhappy and struggles with self- esteem issues. Lester is a depressed man that hits his midlife crisis and he meets his daughters’ friend Angela and immediately develops an infatuation for her that is obvious to his family. Lester then crashes and makes a life changing choice by black mailing his boss, quits his job and trades his current car for a nice red sports car. Through the course of the film his wife cheats on him with a rival real estate agent and his daughter develops a romantic relationship with the neighbor’s son, Ricky who Lester purchases marijuana from. Ricky’s father Col. Fitts notices the growing relationship between his son and Lester and suspects that they are having a homosexual affair. While his family is falling apart Col. Fitts witness what he thinks is an act homosexuality between his son and Lester, he is filled with rage and murders Lester in his home. The film concludes with the narration of Lester being content with his death and the realization that there is so much beauty in the world and he is felt with so much gratitude for every single moment of his stupid little life (American Beauty).
The director uses cinematography and characters to develop the overall theme of the movie. An example of cinematography is how the director uses colors in the background or objects in scenes to convey a message. The Burnham family is a symbol by having a white picket fence, blue window shutters, and red roses; red, white, and blue are true American colors. The film also utilizes the color red to represent the color of desire, Lester with the red Pontiac and red rose pedals for his desire for Angela, also Carolyn with the red roses (Journal). In scenes throughout the movie when Lester desires Angela she is encased in red roses, his desire for her overcomes him in multiple scenes. In many scenes involving Carolyn she has red roses in the scene and when she sees her love affairs billboard his background of the ad is red displaying her desire for him. That shows how the family is trapped in the ideology of the American dream and the need to desire something else in order to be happy.
Material possessions and looking successful is a recurring theme throughout the film. There is scene where it opens up and reveals the family’s home; it focuses on Carolyn trimming her vibrant red roses with matching red garden shears emphasizing the color red for desire. Another instance is where Carolyn cannot sell a house; she abuses herself in front of a mirror: she cries and slaps herself in the face because all she wants is to be a successful real estate agent. (Ebert) Carolyn’s obsession with materials and success clouds her happiness and even causes herself to cheat on her husband with another what she considers successful man.
In a comparison of scenes of the Burnham family we see an important shift of how the family operates after Lester decides that he is not going to be tied down to the American dream. The first scene of dinner, the room is lit bright with light blue wallpaper decorated with happy family pictures and classical music playing in the background. The family dines on a formal dinner table with lit candles as the center piece, again showing how Carolyn is obsessed with material possessions trapped in the American dream. During dinner Jane wonders why they have to listen to the type of music playing; a classical type of song that shows sophistication and success. The family tries to interact with small talk that ends up ending dinner due to some confrontation between the family members because Carolyn is disgusted with Lester and Lester’s relationship with his daughter has become distant. To compare this scene with next dinner scene after Lester has decided to liberate himself the family is upbeat and Carolyn and Lester bicker at one another Jane tries to leave but Lester shouts at her to sit down. Jane becomes shocked of his new side and decides to sit down, Lester explains that he is tired of being ignored and treated like he does not exist. Carolyn tries to interrupt him but Lester throws a plate against the wall with an intended effect to shut Carolyn up and everyone sits at dinner quietly. Soon after a pause Lester says they will start alternating dinner music (American Beauty). This shows the need to find a balance outside of the American dream, while consumed with all the materials and desires the family has been broken, when Lester liberates himself he finds a new happiness, identity and wants to share it with his family.
Due to the fact that Carolyn is so obsessed with the American dream, it damages her intimacy with her husband. Lester gets upset with Carolyn is when he is trying to engage with her sexually and ends up in an argument because she cares about her furniture more than her intimacy with her husband. The director shows Lester and Carolyn in a living room and Lester is trying to kiss her and they begin to experience passion. They lay on the couch and while Carolyn is about to submit to the intimacy she notices out of the corner of her eye that Lester is about to spill beer on the couch and ceases the sexual advance. He then yells “It’s just a couch!” but then she replies that it’s not just a couch because it cost thousands of dollars and is made of Italian silk (Fredonia). If Carolyn were to find a balance and prioritize differently, her marriage would not be so dysfunctional.
Lastly, Ricky the neighbor’s son is a character that embodies the word beauty in American Beauty. Ricky is not a victim of the American dream; he is detached from the conformed world and searches for all the beauty in it. There is a scene where Ricky films a plastic bag floating in the air; being thrown around aimlessly by the wind. The bag being stuck in the vortex of the winds is a situation of complete freedom and Ricky finds so much beauty in it. He even says “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is going to cave in.” (American Beauty) Ricky does not struggle in the world because he is not consumed by the American dream, he is the only character in the dream that is truly happy and set free other than the fact that he lives under the roof of a controlling father. But that is why he makes the decision to leave his house and move to New York. Since Ricky is not trapped in the ideology of the American dream he sees so much beauty, he feels like he can connect with everything around him including god; he has found the balance in his life (Journal).
American Beauty is a film that focuses on the harsh reality of American families that struggle to find happiness in the search for a reachable dream. It is the cultural tendency to be all work and no play that we may lose ourselves and our families. Even after the Burnham’s achieved the American dream they displayed the need to escape from the pressure of desire in order to find happiness in their lives. Without the dramatic lifestyle change and death of Lester, his family would not have ever reflected on their lives to make the necessary adjustments to find happiness within themselves and between the relationships of the family. Sam Mendes delivers his message of the consequences of achieving the American dream by showing all the misfortunes of this family and encourages society to find the beauty in the world by prioritizing your life properly so life is not gone to waste.
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2American Beauty: Lester Burnham and Colonel Frank Fitts“American Beauty,” the 1999 film directed by Sam Mendes, is a motion picture inwhich its characters struggle to control their destiny and find freedom, in different forms,within their own constructed world of dysfunctional perfection. The tag line “look closer”is an indication of the abnormalities to be found within the two American middle-classsuburban families depicted in the film, the Burnhams and Fitts’. The fathers of thesefamilies, Lester Burnham and Colonel Frank Fitts, appear to be polar opposites – theformer suffering from an adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct, the latter fromsevere internalized homophobia and anger management issues. One man is attempting toescape his stressful life events through reckless behavior, while the other tries tosafeguard himself through military control and a deep-seeded, personal fear. However,when we do look closer, the viewer realizes the significance and parallel in one of Lester’s statements: “[We are] a commercial for normal when we are anything but.”The first character introduced to viewers is Lester Burnham, a 42 year old malewho is generally depressed about every aspect of his life. He is married to a career-obsessed Carolyn Burnham who is the major breadwinner as a real estate agent, has spentfourteen years as a “whore for the advertising industry,” and has a teenage daughter whom he believes hates him. In one symbolic car scene we recognize his situation:Carolyn is driving (just like she “drives” the family), his daughter Jane is next to her, andLester sits slouched in the backseat, avoiding further argument with his wife, visually becoming