Life is a routine.
We usually fail to recognize this because life moves so quickly and without ever such remorse that we find ourselves settling into the same lifestyle day after day. However, American Beauty pushes itself to remind us that routines make us forget the very beauty of life itself, hence the name American Beauty.
At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Lester Burnham, a man in the middle of his own existential crisis, and we watch his life play out in routine fashion. Everything is carefully planned, in order to avoid missteps in his day. He develops what most of us develop, a lifestyle of some sort, to which we attribute our everyday successes and failures. He does the same little things everyday, and often finds himself succumbing to the same old antics of his family, who is caught in the same web as he is. He has lost his relationship with Carolyn, his wife, and struggles to create a working one with his daughter Janie. He is a struggling man, and represents many men and women who suffer with the occasional plague of routine. Because of the latter, however, Lester has become a shell of the man he once was. The man he was, though, is not his interest anymore.
The main story drives itself into motion when Lester and Carolyn attend Janie’s halftime performance. Lester notices her friend, Angela Hayes, and instantly salivates over her, providing the viewer with the images of roses that will go as far as to provide us with the main symbol of the film. The rose, a flower if you will, represents Lester’s sensual awakening and escape from the burdens of his painfully ordinary life. His falling in love with Angela snaps him out of a long slumber that prevented him from achieving his goals and making himself happy. He starts to work out once he hears that Angela thinks he looks handsome but needs to work out more in order for her to “fawn over him.” His life is now driven by something else: his desire for Angela. After his awakening, Lester starts living by a different set of rules, and I put emphasis on living. He trades in his ordinary Camry, and purchases his dream car. He quits his ordinary job, and destroys his previous ordinary attitude. He isn’t a servant to the burdens of routine, anymore. Rather he lives his life the way he pleases, and everyone else is of no matter to him but Angela. This causes many domestic issues to play out in his household, including with his estranged wife and daughter.
Now we turn our focus to Carolyn. She has been consumed by the routine nature of everyday life, so much that she has avoided her husband’s sensual and sexual desires. Her work defines her, and she strives to be the best realtor of them all. The only reason she stumbles is because she is weak. She stumbles in her many job exploits, and often finds herself being compared to a better realtor, namely Buddy Kane and his illustrious company. After Lester awakes from a burgeoning existential crisis, she is the sole remnant of the main story’s dilemma: routine.
At this point in the film, Carolyn discovers Lester’s new freeloading behavior, and becomes scarily unleashed. She begins an affair with Buddy Kane built on her own insecurities and guilt, and lets herself go. After she begins to feel down and admits to him that she can’t stack up to him in any way, Buddy tells her, “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.” This is one of the finest quotes that the film has to offer, as it carefully illustrates the unknown path that the two main protagonists begin to take. Routine has swallowed them and now, spit them up into a cloud of uncertainty. Carolyn is now lost, straying away from her orderly sense of conformity, while Lester is found. The main reason director Sam Mendes made this juxtaposition in character was to show just how different each person responds to something. Speaking of this however, we haven’t even gotten to talk about one of the most affected: Janie.
Janie is the daughter of Lester and Carolyn, and a sort of vital plot point at the true heart of the story. She has an ordinary, traditional relationship with Carolyn, but has found herself constantly struggling to form a cohesive and most importantly, consistent relationship with her father, Lester. It is these factors that cause her to become isolated from her family, and start to question many things. Enter Ricky Fitts. Ricky is an intentional jab at isolationism, and the courses it makes the human person take. He is intentionally written as an outcast, and a sort of weird character, who oddly understands the beauty of life more than the average person. Janie’s friend Angela quickly starts to denounce him as weird and sketchy, but Janie keeps him in her rear view mirror, even going as far as to go to his house after school. There, Ricky tells her about his filming, and confides in her that he films only the most beautiful little things seen in life. He shows her a little paper bag floating in the wind, going as far to quote, “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.” Through this, Janie discovers the beauty of life, but isn’t the only one.
Toward the end of the film, Lester finally gets what he wants. He lured Angela Hayes into his corner, and they are just about to make out before he realizes that he is better than this. If anything, Ricky has taught him that life is precious, and he has to make amends with those that he loves the most rather than creating more friction between members of his family. He also realizes that she isn’t his wife. He can learn to be better than who he was, and who he is now, and can make things work with his family if he tries to be a better man. In the last and fleeting moments of his life, Lester truly discovers the beauty of life and its many benefits, rather than its downfalls while reciting the film’s most vital line:
“I guess I could be pretty [upset] about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there is so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I am seeing it all at once, and it is too much. My heart fills up like a ballon that is 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 feel anything but gratitude for every moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about do you? But don’t worry you will someday.”