Change in Character

Carolyn Burnham, like her husband, is constantly on the search for something more. In Carolyn’s case, it is utter perfection and blinding success. From Carolyn’s impeccable rose garden to her solo real-estate business, good isn’t good enough.  We see this when Carolyn is dressed in a matching gardening outfit and is investigating a rose from her garden. rose-inpsectionHere we see this lust for perfection. Despite the fact that she grows beautiful roses and receives complements from her neighbors about them, they aren’t quite perfect. She is scrutinizing the rose, trying to find every last flaw in appearance and form.

This quest for perfection continues throughout the film. Everything was under Carolyn’s control until she faces a new, stern opposition; Lester and his journey for happiness. Lester’s new lifestyle begins to corrupt everything Carolyn has worked towards to create such a perfect self image. The two battle head to head, trying to oppose one another’s next move. However, Lester’s care-free attitude overpowers Carolyn’s controlling nature which makes her extremely unhappy.

This marital warfare continues until Carolyn reaches breaking point after her affair with another man fails to make her happy. On the night of Lester’s death, Carolyn speeds home in the rain with a mad look and a handgun in the glove box. She storms into the house with gun in hand to kill the source of her struggles; only to find that he has already been shot dead. Carolyn quickly finds that with her marriage problems being a motive to kill and her prints on a gun she could be charged with murder. Finally, Carolyn is not able to be perfect and control every aspect of her life. Perhaps Carolyn needed to realise that instead of chasing perfection and success, she should have been chasing happiness like her late husband, Lester. 

The director wanted to show us this change in character for a very good purpose. Carolyn’s quest for unattainable perfection shows the audience that life should not be about pursuing absolute perfection but should be a journey in search of what truly makes us happy in life. Because lets face it, we aren’t perfect and never will be, so why spend your whole life trying to be? The director wanted to push the audience to take control of their lives and be content and happy with what we have before it’s too late to do so. This message is especially relevant in today’s society where we see more and more young adults forcing themselves into tertiary education to get degrees they don’t want and getting into jobs they don’t enjoy.  

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Setting and Effect

Lester’s environment has a massive effect on his life and the way he lives. Lester lives in a suburban environment that screams the American Dream. He seems to have it all. A nice house surrounded by a white picket fence, a good job and a family. How could he not be happy?

The setting purposefully contradicts what the audience thinks to show us how a life that seems to have it all doesn’t make us happy or content with life. Upon closer inspection we learn that Lester’s privileged life really isn’t all that good. His life has become so monotonous and comfortable that Lester has fallen asleep at the helm of life.

Lester isn’t the only Burnham struggling with happiness. Carolyn has become so obsessed with portraying such a superficial life of perfection and happiness that she herself has forgotten how to be happy. Carolyn is a very driven woman who cares more about success that anything else. Perhaps if she took a step back and looked at her life the way Lester learns to then maybe we wouldn’t have witnessed such a tragic ending to the film.

Setting Exploration

American Beauty is set in 1990’s America in a very generic and typical neighborhood. Although it was filmed in California, the physical setting is never revealed during the film. The neighborhood is so ordinary that it could perhaps be a representation of many suburban neighborhoods and lifestyles across America.

Adjectives that describe the setting and mood of the film:

  • Ordinary (Referring to the neighborhood)
  • Sad American Beauty
  • Tragic
  • Perfect (On the surface) 
  • Troubled
  • Strange

 

Lester Burnham – Hero’s Journey

heroic-journey

Part I:

1.) Lester Burnham, the protagonist of the film lives an incredibly linear and mundane life in the beginning of his story. A very ordinary lifestyle; the regular ‘9-5’ office job followed up with returning to a white picket fence home in the suburbs where his narcissistic, class-conscious wife, Carolyn,  wears the pants in the relationship.

2.) Lester receives “the call to adventure” or change in his life when he and his wife try to support their self loathing daughter, Jane, by attending her cheer-leading show. Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s best friend Angela and her provocative body and dancing. Lester soon finds himself escaping is monotonous life by fantasizing about Angela. This weird and perverted attraction seems to resuscitate Lester back into control of his life. Time for some serious change.

3.)   Lester quickly realises that Angela is far out of his league, at least with his current state and physique. Lester finds out that Angela would ‘totally screw him’ if he worked out a little more. Lester soon starts working out in the garage to get himself in shape.

Part II

1.) Lester also alters his mental and social attitude to help take control of his life again. He is dragged along to a real estate function with Carolyn who firmly instructs Lester to “act normal” as an attempt to present a perfect social image. Lester snaps after years of Carolyn’s micro-management and embarrasses her in front of all her real estate rivals. Lester can’t deal with everyone acting so fake so he retreats outside where he meets Ricky, a waiter at the function who is smoking a joint outside. Lester learns that Ricky sells weed and works as a cover up but coincidentally goes to school with Angela and he is also their new neighbor. Lester  begins to idolize Ricky and his attitude after they are both caught smoking weed by Ricky’s boss. Ricky is told off by his boss but Ricky takes no notice and abruptly quits, silencing his boss mid sentence.  Lester decides that he wants to replicate Ricky’s care-free attitude in his own life.

2.) After meeting Ricky, Lester makes some massive changes to his daily life. He blackmails his way into receiving a hefty retirement fund when quitting his job. He splurges out and buys his favorite muscle car and when he’s not working at his new job at a burger joint he spends his day eating getting in shape and smoking weed in the garage.

3.) Lester’s new lifestyle and chase for happiness isn’t well received. Carolyn hates his pot smoking habit and his new car even more. Lester attempts to revive their love life, but Carolyn literally cares more about the sofa than re-igniting their love life. It dawns on Lester that any move he makes in an attempt to become happy again will be opposed by Carolyn and her fiery attitude.

Part III:

1.) Ricky’s father, Frank, begins to notice how often his son is sneaking off to the Burnham’s. Whilst most of Ricky’s disappearances have been rather innocent (mainly seeing his lover Jane or dealing pot to Lester), Frank gets the wrong idea. Frank is convinced that his son is going next door not to visit Jane, but to have gay sex with Lester. This ruffles Frank’s feathers as he is a strong military man and known homophobe. Or is he? Frank puts it upon himself to give Lester a visit to rough him up for ‘roughing up’ Ricky. Frank shocks Lester and the audience collectively by not punching Lester, but by pecking him on the lips instead. Lester is confused and is understandably weird-ed out causing him to give Frank the cold shoulder. Frank leaves in a hurry knowing that Lester knows his controversial secret.

2.) Lester heads back inside where he finds the dreamy Angela waiting for him. This is the chance. Lester’s dreams, although creepy, are about to come true. The two get cosy but in the heat of the moment Angela blurts out that she is in fact a virgin, making her not the kind of woman that Lester had fantasised about. Lester realises that he cannot continue to take this girls virginity. This encounter changes Lester. You’d think he’d be feeling quite crushed after all of his hard work to impress Angela has just crashed and burned, but he’s not. All of the changes he has made in his life have made him a more happy, grounded man who sticks up for what he himself thinks is right. Unfortunately for Lester and his new found happiness, Frank returns for vengeance. Frank shoots Lester in the back of the head knowing that Lester would take his homosexual secret to the grave.

3.) With both Lester’s dreams and brain shattered, his story is over. His death closes the book on what has been a journey of self discovery and the journey of happiness. Lester’s death, although grim, serves as a very peaceful and powerful ending to the film as he spends his last seconds smiling at a family photo. At last Lester is happy and has died knowing that he has restored meaning back into his once boring life.

Part IV:

1.) After Lester’s death, we pan back into the sky, looking over the Burnham’s suburban neighborhood (A symbol of the American Dream). We hear Lester’s voice over the aerial shot, reflecting about how it all ended.

2.) As the end of the film looms near, we relive Lester’s life in the form of memories as his life flashed before his eyes in his moment of death. We seem him as a boy which develops into fatherhood and into the Lester we know and loved.

3.) Lester acknowledges how he could be annoyed at how his life ended, but he can’t stay mad for long when he considers how beautiful being a life is and how much he will cherish the fact that he got to experience so much and be a part of life in general. Lester talks to the audience agreeing at the fact that his happiness is confusing at first but he explains that we will understand one day. Perhaps we could use Lester’s journey as a reminder to make change in our own lives.