Controversial opinion of the day: American Beauty is a top 5 movie ever made. Anyone interested in psychology should love this movie and watch it a hundred times.
The first time I watched the movie, when I was around 20, I had the same reaction most people have: “It’s a weird movie about a creepy old man who wants to live out his fantasy to bang a young chick and a sexually confused maybe gay definitely angry neighbor next door.” But that’s not it. I’m telling you. Read my essay then watch it again. Then tell me I’m right.
American Beauty is an essay on how to be happy. It describes an “ordinary” man who has a wife, a child, a house in the suburbs, and works a white collar job he hates. He has everything promised in the “American Dream” – down to the picket fence. It could be any one of my coworkers.
The movie takes us on a journey where Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) confronts his inhibitions and desires and becomes a master over his mind. The chain of events begins when he lays on his daughter’s friend Angela. He’s inspired by his lust for her and soon quits his job without worrying about the financial consequence. He will figure it out.
Yes, the way he went about quitting his job was arguably unethical. But that doesn’t matter too much as it relates to the main idea of the movie.
“BuT hE wOuLdN’t HaVe MoNeY” it doesn’t matter.
Lester would have been happy without the money. He would have been happy without buying the sports car. He would move into a tiny apartment if he had to, keep his job with “the least possible amount of responsibility” and enjoy the freedom that follows.
Freedom from what? He can’t buy anything. He can’t travel anywhere. And he can’t just bang all of his daughter’s friends.
Lester would forever enjoy freedom from wants. He doesn’t need to buy anything, travel anywhere, or even bang his daughter’s friends in order to be happy. Not even the one friend that’s a centerpiece in the movie.
The other protagonist that moves the idea of the movie along is the neighbor child, Ricky Fitts. The drug dealing “psycho” that almost murdered a classmate – back in the day, plays a complement to Lester’s character. He is going through life with much of the wisdom of Spacey, but at a young age. He is able to appreciate beauty, be happy, and love others. Lester’s final speech, as the credits begin to roll, incorporates lines from a speech Ricky gave when the plastic bag was flying around. This shares the common wisdom, but also goes a little further than Ricky, showing a calmness and acceptance compared to Ricky’s emotional speech.
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.
Another set of complementary characters are Lester’s wife, the Real Estate King, and Angela. These three people represent the antithesis to the wisdom and happiness of Lester and Ricky Fitts. They resent what’s “ordinary”, but in doing so just put on an appearance that’s not genuine and hides deeper insecurities.
The “villain” in the movie is the idea represented by these characters. The bad guy isn’t the macho mean Marine next door. It’s the idea that “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times” – The RE King.
The three characters represent “success” in the material world. The RE King is financially successful and has a hot wife. Carolyn has a good job, her house is in order, and her garden is top notch. Angela is hot and presumably has lots of friends and suitors.
The problem with “ordinary” is that it isn’t exciting or fun, and therefore doesn’t lead to happiness. This is because so many individuals aren’t happy during the course of ordinary life, so they believe they must do things that aren’t ordinary to become happy. So they travel, they have affairs, they fire a gun. But these don’t lead to happiness. These things only magnifies the external image that’s supposed to make the individual happy without dealing with the problems inside.
Happiness isn’t found doing what’s ordinary. And it’s definitely not found doing the extraordinary.
The worldly success these three characters experience doesn’t bring them happiness. It’s all a show. These characters project an external image to protect the sense of self they built up. They do this to protect themselves from their internal fears and insecurities. They are narcissists, and rather than face their internal demons, they mask them with pretty colors, expensive suits, and fun sex. The world sees this success and they are saved from sharing their insecurity of being alone. Is this true success?
The movie takes place over the course of a few months. It’s a small amount of time that Spacey is free and happy. He was miserable at his job and in his marriage, for decades. But if you asked him if he lived a happy life, he would say yes. I know that because he says so in the end, and also I relate to it. When you become a deeply happy person, you become happy forever. Not a fleeting good feeling, but a deep unshakable happiness. Happiness is a characteristic, not a feeling. Lester experiences eternal happiness. Heaven on Earth, for the Christians.
Eternal happiness is a real thing. More people should strive for it. I recommend it. Lester chose to find happiness in the last months of his life. He stopped caring about what other people thought of him. He allowed himself to be hated by his wife, his daughter, and his previous employers. He no longer lived for others and started living for himself. Of course, he never was really living for others. He was living to protect his ego from being damaged by the opinions of others, until he stopped.
I’m not recommending selfishness. I’m recommending loving others or having a family or working a job for the right reasons. The right reason is never to look good compared to others or to make yourself look good.
Lester started down this path inspired by a hot young girl. The man started lifting, eating well, and becoming stronger – physically and mentally. He did this with the hope that he might have sex with Angela. During his transition into a sexually attractive man, he comes to the other realization that he’d been living for other people, and becomes the wise, happy, misunderstood man that doesn’t compromise his values for others. When he is finally given the opportunity to have sex with Angela, she tells him she’s a virgin. In doing so, she admits that her whole persona has been a front, a fiction.
Lester, horny as he must be, steps back and refuses to corrupt her. To have sex with her as the cool, strong man he is would have the effect of encouraging her to have sex with strong men because it feels so good. These good feels and orgasms would make someone happy just like making more money selling real estate and firing guns will make someone happy – not for long. Lester realizes he is now a happy, strong person, and doesn’t need the validation of sex or any other form of validation. He is complete.
Lester confronted his fears and inhibitors, destroys them, and becomes happy. He’s able to have everything he ever wanted – in his case, young pussy. He realizes when it’s right in front of him that he already has everything he needs and that having sex with the girl will only fuel her to want more. So he does the right thing, and leaves her with a hug. Again, for the Christians, he becomes a preacher of the word of the Lord, rather than a strong devil.
You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.