Updated: Feb 18, 2021
As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the movie, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers below.
Many people have described American Beauty as being about "the meaning of life" or "the hollow existence of the American suburbs." In contrast to our recently reviewed movie - About Schmidt, where the main character, played by Jack Nicholson, has an end-life crisis; the main character of American Beauty, Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, appears to have a midlife crisis at the age of 42. After a short opening, the movie starts off with an introduction:
My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don't know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.
As Lester notes, although he is physically alive, he is really a dead man walking. The company he works for is requesting that all employees write a job description, for the company to determine who is valuable and who can be let go. Furthermore, his wife, Carolyn Burnham, doesn't have sex with him anymore and his daughter, Jane Burnham, barely speaks to him. His creepy neighbor, Ricky Fitts, films him and his family when they are not aware. Then one day, he sees his daughter's friend, Angela Hayes, cheerleading. Oddly, this sparks lustful thoughts and creates somewhat of a spiritual awakening for Lester.
Up until that point, Lester can be viewed as an ordinary man living the American dream. You know, the one sold on the shelves of Walmart or marked up at Whole Foods and sold for a premium? The dream we all buy into to fulfill our ordinary lives. Interestingly, Angela the girl Lester is lusting over, believes that there is "nothing worse in life than being ordinary". Ironically, she is also ordinary, but makes up elaborate lies in order to seem extraordinary. As a result of Lester’s awakening, he starts working out, quits his job, blackmails his boss for $60,000, and starts smoking pot.
Later in the movie, Jane falls for Ricky. Together they watch a recording of a plastic bag whisking every which way in the wind. Ricky describes what they are seeing:
It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.
Sometimes all we can do is sit back and watch life whisk us away. Although most would never consider it, there is quite a lot of beauty behind it all.
Later in the movie, Carolyn sleeps with another man Lester doesn't yet know. But he tries to smooth things over with her romantically. They begin to get intimate until his wife snaps out of it exclaiming "Lester, you're going to spill beer on the couch!" Arguing a bit about the $4,000 couch, Lester comes to the conclusion, "This isn't life, it's just stuff. And it's become more important to you than living."
Not long afterwards, Lester goes on a run and thinks to himself "Remember those posters that said, 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life?' Well, that's true of every day but one - the day you die." Naturally, a prelude of the end soon to come.
In the end, Lester is murdered. During that time you hear Lester narrate the following:
I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of 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 on to 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.
What is interesting about the film, that could never be capture in this short review, is the fact that one could watch the film several times, from the perspective of different characters, and each time come up with different philosophies for life. This is a thought shared by Mendes who stated that the script gave a different meaning each time it was read.
However, one meaning that is very clear is the inability of the American dream to fulfill the requirements of what is considered to be a meaningful life. That is, the American dream in and of itself, does not equate to a meaningful life. This misconception often leads people to have a midlife crisis. Lester realizes this and breaks free to determine the meaning of life for himself.
In the book, Movies and the Meaning of Life, the author discusses American Beauty and relates the movie to Plato's Cave. In Plato's Cave, people are shackled and bound, only to watch shadows on the wall. Only when a person is able to break free of the shackles and leave the cave can a person see the world in a different light. Coming out of the cave, one can see beauty, true beauty. However, most people eventually return to the cave, return to their previous life. Upon return, their new enlightened state is rejected, hence there is conflict between the enlightened and unenlightened. But not to worry, usually the enlightened become sedated again and return to the shadows, resolving the conflict. Besides Plato's Cave, other reviews go on to view Lester's life as that of Sisyphus, hopelessly rolling a rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down, repeatedly.
The magic of the film is that it captures the small moments that are often forgotten or go on being missed. These moments are what give life meaning... not the objects we collect or buy…like the couch. Again, think about this for a second. Moments, not objects, give our lives meaning. Living life and appreciating the beauty of the small things give us meaning. This is why investing in memories instead of objects brings so much happiness to life.
We rate the movie as follows:
Overall - 8
Meaning of Life Relevance - 7
Uniqueness – 6
If you saw the movie what did you think? What did we miss?