Lester Burnham’s pursuit of happiness: the film "American Beauty" and its socio-cultural and spiritual dimensions

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction and purpose of the paper

2. American Beauty; characters, plot and structure

3. Critical approaches
American Beauty as a critique of consumerism and materialism
American Beauty as a spiritual parable
American Beauty and the motif of paedophilia

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction and purpose of the paper

If one takes a look at the 1999 Sam Mendes picture American Beauty and its overwhelming success both at the box offices and at the countless movie festivals all around the globe, one might start wondering what it was that made this relatively cheap (“only” 15 Million $ budget) film about a middle-class All-American father and his struggle with life in a consume oriented suburban environment so successful? The film not only grossed more than twenty times its production cost, but is also one of the highest critically acclaimed movies of all times. Many main-stream critics trace the films success back to its genre twisted plot, the outstanding performance of both its main and supporting actors and its broad appeal that, as Begeman has put it: “transcends genre, a narrowly defined audience, and cultural and socioeconomic borders.”[1] The story of a burned-out average middle-class American who tries to regain his personal freedom through dramatic personal changes in his life, seems to provide just the perfect material for yet another short-lived movie experience whose half-life is comparable to those of the many “Help yourself” guidebooks published each and every year. But those superficial conclusions are as far away from the truth as the movie is from being ordinary. On the contrary, it seems that even more than seven years after its initial publication, film scholars and analysts have not yet managed to interpret the movie in its multidimensional entity. Without even trying to claim to have found the key approach to understanding American Beauty, this paper will focus on main character Lester Burnham’s quest for happiness and meaning in life and follow him through the movie’s structure and narrative in order to answer the rather simple question: what is this film about? Is it simply a critique of a materialistic American middle-class society that is driven by the superficial “suburban pressure to conform and to acquire”[2] ? Or does it also offer deeper reaching motifs that needed to be examined in order to get to the core meaning of the film? To answer those questions, this paper will first provide a comprehensive summary of the films structure, narrative and characters by applying it to the analytical pattern of Syd Field’s “Paradigm”[3], putting its main focus on the character Lester Burnham and his interaction with his environment. Secondly, the paper will take up upon three different critical approaches to the movie’s meaning, examining it within the frameworks of a critique on materialism and consumerism, a spiritual parable and a pointer to pedophilic potential within a society. On the basis of these examinations, it will be tried to be proven that the aforesaid motifs constitute the films major theoretical groundwork.

2. American Beauty; characters, plot and structure




We're FLYING above suburban America, DESCENDING SLOWLY toward a tree-lined street.


My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This... is my life. I'm forty-two years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead.


We're looking down at a king-sized BED from OVERHEAD:

LESTER BURNHAM lies sleeping amidst expensive bed linens, face down, wearing PAJAMAS. An irritating ALARM CLOCK RINGS. Lester gropes blindly to shut it off.


Of course, I don't know that yet. He rolls over, looks up at us and sighs. He doesn't seem too thrilled at the prospect of a new day.

LESTER (V.O.) (cont'd)

And in a way, I'm dead already.

He sits up and puts on his slippers”[4]

These few disillusioned sentences told by off-screen voice narrator and main protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) introduce us to the story of his last year on earth, indicating that the narrative of the film will unfold in flashbacks. Combined with the very first sequence of the film that show a videotaped conversation between a young girl (Lester Burnham’s daughter Jane) complaining about her fathers lack of being a role model for her and expressing the wish that somebody should “put him out of his misery”[5], and the camera operator (her next-door neighbour and later lover Ricky Fitts) that replies by asking “Do you want me to kill him for you?”[6], the viewer is immediately likely to anticipate the following 2 hours of movie watching to be framed within another “murder mystery or detective film”[7]. Following director Sam Mendes’ audio commentary, this introduction refers to the 1950 Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard, whose similar style of narrating the story from the perspective of a dead character serves to introduce the “spiritual loneliness that is present in much of the film”[8]. To conclude about the films genre from the beginning scenes must prove to be premature because, in fact, even after close re-examination, viewers have a hard time locating it into a fixed genre sphere. This paper agrees with Linda Aronson’s notion considering American Beauty a “metaphorical siege … in which a group of alienated people are trapped together in Middle America”[9]. The alienated group -as Aronson calls it- basically consist of two neighbour families and one of the family’s children’s friends living side by side in one of the typical North-American suburbs that happen to resemble each other so much that it actually makes it non relevant for us to know where it is located. Although one might argue that the movie can be seen as “a clear example of a multiple protagonist narrative”[10], since it draws a lot of attention to each of the protagonists, its felt emphasis is put on part time narrator/main character Lester Burnham, whose story provides the framework for the film and whose actions throughout the narrative are the “internal trigger”[11] that will destabilize the rest of the group. Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) is introduced to us as a bored man in his early forties, who lives a dull life doing his nine to five job in an advertisement agency, feeling alienated, disillusioned and ignored by his wife and daughter and does not seem to feel any pleasure in life. Mechanically masturbating in his shower every morning states the “high point”[12] of his day after which everything else will be just “down hill from here”[13]. Cynically elaborating from an omniscient narrator’s position about his wife, who exhausts him by “just watching her”[14] and his daughter Jane whom he portrays as a “pretty typical teenager” that is “angry, insecure and confused”[15], he leaves us with no further doubt about the disgust he feels when thinking about his social situation. This visual and narrative exposition (serving as setup and exposition for the story as a whole) of Lester Burnham’s life imprisoned in a beautifully arranged but yet impersonal suburban environment - or as Law calls it “mundane and arid existence”[16] - is metaphorically supported by reoccurring images of him behind frames that appear to be prison bars. The audience gets to see him caught in the shower, reflected by the computer screen of his claustrophobically small work place that is intersected by columns of figures, and stuck in the tiny space in the back seat of his wife’s SUV. In those first moments of the film it becomes inevitably clear that Lester Burnham is a prisoner of his own life. Further demotivated by his daughter’s and his wife’s contempt for his persona and his performance as both a father and husband that is neither a “role model”[17] nor an empathetic partner, he summarizes:


[1] http://www.wsc.edu/schools/ahu/publications_media/publications/hot_papers_03.pdf Access.4-13-2007.

[2] Ibid p.70.

[3] Field, Syd: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting . Dell Publishing, New York, 1979.

[4] Ball, Allan. American Beauty: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press, 1999, p.1-2.

[5] Ibid, p.1.

[6] Ibid, p.1.

[7] Law, Shirley. Looking Closer: Structure, Style and Narrative in American Beauty . Atom, Screen Education Magazine, 2006, p1.25.

[8] Mendes, Sam. Commentary: American Beauty. Awards Edition DVD, dir. Sam Mendes, 2000; Los Angeles, CA: Universal Studios, 2003.

[9] Aronson, Linda. Scriptwriting Updated: New and Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen. Sydney: Allen &Unwin, 2000,p.222.

[10] Law, Shirley: p.124.

[11] Aronson, Linda: p.223.

[12] Ball, Allen: p.1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ball, Allen: p.3.

[16] Law, Shirley: p.123.

[17] Ball, Allen:p.1.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Lester Burnham’s pursuit of happiness: the film "American Beauty" and its socio-cultural and spiritual dimensions
Dresden Technical University  (Department of American Cultural Studies)
The US: 1980’s till today
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ISBN (eBook)
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Lester, Burnham’s, American, Beauty
Quote paper
Alexander Kasten (Author), 2007, Lester Burnham’s pursuit of happiness: the film "American Beauty" and its socio-cultural and spiritual dimensions, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/91879


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