The 1999 movie American Beauty starred Kevin Spacey as a middle-aged office worker. Annette Benning starred as his wife in the Academy Award winning movie. In the movie, Lester Burnham (Spacey) struggles with a mid-life crisis. His wife, Carolyn, is a materialistic woman, while his daughter, Jane, suffers from insecurities. Lester is in love with his daughter’s beautiful friend and fantasizes about her throughout the movie. The movie was praised for both its cinematic achievement and the profound themes that were found throughout the movie. The movie can be viewed as a satire of American middle class existence through the use of it its themes. These themes included materialism, sexuality, and liberation. These themes are intertwined in the movie to create an amazing cinematic experience.
In the movie, Burnham finds himself in love with Angela, his daughter’s beautiful teenage friend. He struggles with his daily existence and finds his fantasies to be a necessary tonic from his dull life. Lester feels imprisoned in his life and longs to be free. There are multiple ways in which the movie reflects imprisonment. The types of imprisonment seen result from the typical suburban American lifestyle. Lester works a dreary job in the movie. He longs to escape from this job; however, he cannot. His obligations as a father and husband force him to keep his career intact. He is forced to do this because his income must support the typical suburban lifestyle, which is quite expensive. In the movie, while sitting at his desk, Lester is reflected in his computer screen. In this image, the mindless lines of data create the image of prison bars. He is literarily and figuratively trapped by his job. He eventually does escape from his career prison. In a move that screams “mid-life crisis,” Lester quits his job and begins to work at a fast food joint. He tries to escape from the classic middle-class existence. He drives a boring car; he trades this in for a classic sports car.
He is also trapped in a marriage that no longer fulfills him. In this way, imprisonment also becomes entwined with the theme of sexuality. He frequently engages in masturbation in the shower. The small confines of the shower also indicate his imprisonment. His wife is unfaithful; this is her way of escaping the marriage. She is exploring her sexuality in her own illicit way. He is not the only one in the story who is trapped in the confines of his sexuality. His neighbor, Frank, is a retired Marine Colonel. He is a strict disciplinarian, as one would anticipate. However, he has also been trapped into the rigors of a military life and existence. He could also not escape. As a Marine, he was expected to be an upstanding citizen, and most importantly for the Marines, heterosexual. However, he is not. While he is homophobic, he is secretly homosexual. His homophobia is classic repressed homosexuality. He refers to gays as “faggots” in the movie. He kisses Lester at the end of the movie, indicating this. It is apparent that he has been trapped into a false existence his entire adulthood, and likely life.
The theme of sexuality, however, is not entirely mixed with the theme of imprisonment. Obviously, there is the theme of sexual exploration in the movie. Lester fantasizes about a sexual experience throughout the movie. Angela, the young beauty in the movie, repeatedly claims to be sexually experienced. In reality, she is a virgin. There is a question with regards to what is appropriate sexual behavior in this group. Homosexuality is not acceptable. When Frank believes that his son is a homosexual, he responds with violence. Lester recognizes that his fantasies of Angela are also inappropriate; this does not stop him though. His wife’s affair is morally wrong as well. However, she finds freedom in it. It lifts her spirits and she begins to sing again. All of these characters are no longer repressed once they surrender to their sexual natures, even if they are socially unacceptable. Lester does begin to seduce Angela. Obviously, a middle-aged man sleeping with a fifteen year old girl is not only socially unacceptable, is it illegal. Lester would be banished from society for this action. He does not continue to seduce Angela once he discovers that she is a virgin. She is not sexually repressed. She is merely young. Her comments about sexuality reflect what she believes society expects from a beautiful young model. All of the characters try to fit into society’s expectations. None of them, however, can do this sexually.
Materialism is another dominant theme in the movie. This is indicated with Lester’s job. Obviously, a career, even a boring one, pays more than fast food. However, Lester eventually rejects the materialistic lifestyle of America. He works a minimum wage Mc-job. His wife’s materialism is a dominant aspect of her life. She desires, on the surface, the perfect middle class existence. As a mother, she is more concerned with her daughter’s appearance than with her happiness and psychological needs. She chastises her daughter for appearing unattractive. Her daughter craves security, not beauty. Carolyn is a real estate agent. Her career focuses on houses, which are then filled with stuff. She is not concerned about the quality of life that occurs in the houses. His wife worries more about their possessions than living. When Lester and Carolyn begin to experience romance at one point, Carolyn stops. She is more concerned with their expensive Italian leather sofa than enjoying an amazing moment in life. Lester’s frustration with her materialism is obvious. He screams at his wife that this is only stuff, not life.
In American Beauty, a number of themes work together to indicate that the classic American lifestyle is not fulfilling. It leads to materialism, rather than appreciation for experiences. It creates repression in individuals. It also forces individuals to become trapped in the existence of suburbia. They are not free to fulfill their desires and needs. Rather, they struggle with the desire to escape from the cage they created. In this manner, the movie is a satire on what America believes is an appropriate lifestyle. The viewer realizes that it is not.