Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell 

Sam Mendes (director) and Alan Ball (writer), American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty (1999), directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan ball, is black comedy that promotes existentialism and the values of the hippy counter-culture of the 1960s as a path to happiness and fulfilment.  The story features the midlife crisis of a 42-year-old suburban man, Lester Burnham, who has a miserable marriage, an unfulfilling family life and an unsatisfying job.  This once spirited and adventurous young man has lost his way.  His escape from his current predicament is to rediscover the counter-cultural attitudes of his youth and to adopt the existentialist philosophy and credo to ‘live for the moment’ rather than for the future, which involves doing the things he always wanted to do rather than the things he felt he obliged to do.  

Existentialism argues that we live in an unpredictable or ‘absurd’ universe, with the only thing that is predictable being mortality.  It therefore tends to draw attention to the prevalence of chance.  In addition, existentialists mistrust all philosophies and religions, believing that the only ideas that you can trust, or that matter, are those experienced directly through your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell).  The attitude to life that stems from this philosophy is that life is all that you have, and it can end at any moment (as it does in the film for Lester Burnham), so make the most of it while you can.  You should make the most of your life by experiencing things, especially through your senses.  This credo can be summarised as ‘live for the moment’ rather than for the future. 

In addition, existentialists believe that life has no meaning except that which you give it.  Therefore it is up to each individual to define his or her life or existence.  Existentialism promotes the idea that each individual is a free agent who can and should determine what is important to them and the morality by which they should live, regardless of whether or not they are understood by others.  Existentialist ideas can be used to promote the kind of left-wing libertarianism valued by many who subscribe to values of the hippy counter-culture. 

Lester Burnham ditches his demanding yet routine job in a large corporation to instead take up an undemanding job in a burger chain restaurant that gives him the freedom to pursue his life the way he wants to live it.  Unlike a career, this is the type of ordinary job that does not define your identity.  By taking a job that is usually done by young people, the middle-aged Lester Burnham is reconnecting with the Lester Burnham of his youth.  Lester Burnham seeks fulfilment through experiences, like using illicit drugs (marijuana), listening to rock music, and by pursuing his lust for a teenage girl, a quest that inspires him to ‘work out’ to make his body more attractive.  He also spends his money on fulfilling his hedonistic dreams rather than on his obligations, as he does when he buys a fancy sports car (the car he always wanted) with his severance pay. 

As a middle-aged man who lost is way, by rediscovering the spirit of the 1960s Lester Burnham finds that it is the youth who have the answers regarding how to live a happy life.  His guru is the teenage drug dealer, Ricky, who lives next door and who befriends, then romances, his teenage daughter, Jane. 

The large suburban house in which Lester Burnham lives lacks intimacy, and is sterile, white, and empty of character, with the exception of his daughter Jane’s bedroom, which is represented in crimson so it is seen as the heart of the house.  Her room is full of life amidst the starkness of the rest of the house.  Like Ricky, she too represents a young person who has a better idea of how to live than her middle-aged, middle-class parents do.  She is spontaneous, quirky, passionate and willing to take a risk.  She uses recreational drugs and falls in love with the intense young man, Ricky, who is her next door neighbour.  She sees through his apparent weirdness to value the insightful, passionate young man underneath who possesses the existentialist attitude to life that the film promotes as the key to happiness.  Through his existentialist attitude, he appreciates all the beauty in the world that can be found in apparently ordinary things, and he does this despite the ugliness and oppressiveness of mainstream middle-class suburbia that surrounds him. 

In this regard, the key scene in the film that reveals its existentialist message is the one when Ricky narrates the beauty he saw in the video footage he took of an empty plastic bag being blown by a breeze a parking lot.  With his existentialist attitude, he has the capacity to see the beauty in life that most people overlook. 

Meanwhile, the film condemns the middle-class American dream of pursuing material success and seeking a large house in the suburbs.  It depicts this as vacuous, meaningless, misguided, and ultimately unsatisfying, mediocre and bland.  However, the film goes beyond this to condemn conservative, capitalist America as misguided and even as twisted and perverted. 

As a man employed by a large corporation, Lester Burnham is presented as subjected to performing an unsatisfying job from which he is alienated while being vulnerable to the ruthless designs of ambitious executives keen to make a name for themselves by cutting costs, which means cutting staff (a scenario that is meant to validate the Marxist critique of capitalist competition as leading to the unjust treatment of workers).  Meanwhile, Lester Burnham’s wife Carolyn is an aspirational real estate agent who pursues money for money’s sake, which the filmmakers suggest represents an empty quest to prove one’s value as measured by economic success.  Worse, she is depicted somewhat twisted, engaging in an affair with a more successful but equally shallow rival estate agent from whom she will derive and share a gun fetish, which is a means by which the filmmakers characterise mainstream America as perverted.  In addition to the capitalist middle class, another target of the pro-hippy filmmakers is the military, which is also depicted as twisted and perverted.  The father of Ricky the drug dealer is presented as a sadistic authoritarian ex-army officer who is a gun-owner who collects Nazi memorabilia and who hates homosexuals to cover for his closeted homosexual desires.  These desires eventually manifest themselves publicly when he makes a pass at Lester Burnham, which produces profound shame followed by homicidal violence. 

Consequently, the film’s attitude to homosexuality is multifaceted.  On one hand the film uses homosexual characters, such as a neighbourly local gay couple, to promote the toleration and acceptance of gay people.  On the other hand, the film uses the notion of suppressed homosexuality (a theory derived from Freudian psychoanalysis) to characterise those who overtly hate homosexuals as trying to fend off, or camouflage, their forbidden desires and subsequent feelings of guilt.  The filmmakers used homosexuality as a means to taint this military man as hypocritical and perverted.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: American Beauty meaning, American Beauty themes, American Beauty analysis, American Beauty notes