1999 had its fair share of rebellious movies like Fight Club, The Matrix, Office Space, and American Beauty. These films expressed distaste for a system in our society, whether that be political or cultural (all of these films feature a middle age man fed up with full time office work for some reason). American Beauty approached this same dissatisfaction with modern living by way of character study.
Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, is the protagonist. He is going through what many would consider to be a midlife crisis, and an attraction to his daughter’s friend ignites a youthful revolution within him. Someone watching this movie for the first time may guess where he ends up; his actions are immoral, and the change in Lester may come through as punishment or a lesson about his flawed decision-making. However, something that makes American Beauty so interesting is how it integrates side characters within the story and how they relate to one another. It is done in a way that is unexpectedly engaging. Most films have a protagonist with a clear goal they want to achieve, and the side characters will either help them or try to prevent them from achieving that goal. American Beauty’s cast interacts with Lester, but it’s done so in a way that isn’t so simple.
American Beauty presents what appear to be stereotypical characters, but they are not simply catalysts for the plot and the main character. While a great deal of time is following Lester and his youthful, rebellious habits (smoking weed, listening to music from his youth, buying an expensive car, trying to get laid), the people around him interact with him in a way that initially feels “convenient” to his story alone. However, multiple character arcs are being built on top of each other in a way that’s difficult to predict upon the first viewing.
American Beauty not only has Lester’s arc, but four other well-developed arcs — Jane, Carolyn, Angela, and Colonel Fitts. The characters subvert our expectations as viewers in a way that is relatable and satisfactory to the story.
Colonel Fitts is a homophobic veteran who abuses his son and has a narrow-minded view of the world around him. When he approaches Lester in the pouring rain, the film gives us the expectation that he might hurt or threaten Lester. Instead, he kisses him. We realize as viewers that he is someone who uses homophobia as a way to suppress his internal feelings. This motivation makes sense, and it completely changes how you watch the film and perceive the character for future viewings.
Angela inflates her ego by talking about her sexual experience and her physical beauty. When Jane and Ricky plan their runaway, we expect Angela to become upset with Ricky and potentially engage with Lester in spite of her relationship with Jane. Instead, we learn that she created a fake narrative about herself in order for people to like her. She is a virgin who built up a wall of lies in order to impress others. Angela longs for someone to find beauty in her where she couldn’t find it in herself. When we the audience gain this information, it becomes clear that she is envious of Jane’s relationship. Lester takes this opportunity to redeem himself by ironically providing parental advice to his daughter’s friend (the girl he was sexually pursuing throughout the entire movie).
Carolyn, Lester’s real estate agent wife, reacts to Lester’s recent youthful behaviors and lack of career success by sleeping with another real estate agent. His success attracts her because it is something she can’t find within herself and her professional career. However, this relationship ultimately lacks an emotional connection, and Carolyn’s breaking point in the film’s finale reflect that.
Jane is the typical, angsty teenager who is angry towards her parents and angry towards life. She finds independence and romantic fulfillment through Ricky, her next door neighbor. As tensions build up at home, she furthers her belief that moving away is the answer. Through Lester’s own tribulations, it’s probably safe to say that she feels something more than just loss with Lester’s passing.
Jane is the character which benefits the most in the story because she has the most room for growth beyond the end of the film. Lester and Carolyn’s arcs are demonstrations for how to become a better person (even if their arcs may show examples of what not to do).
These arcs have a reoccurring problem — self-esteem. Ricky gives a monologue about beauty in the world while watching footage he took of a floating paper bag in the wind.
This bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. 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 just so much beauty in this world, I feel like I can’t take it anymore, and my heart is just going to cave in. – Ricky Fitts, played by Wes Bentley
Despite Ricky’s odd sensibilities, he’s recognizing something every character is looking for in the film: a sustainable beauty to relieve themselves of their flaws and weaknesses. Each character in the film has a “beauty” which can be recognized:
- Carolyn’s beauty: Affair with the real estate agent.
- Jane’s beauty: Relationship with Ricky.
- Angela’s beauty: Lying in order to be accepted.
- Colonel Fitts’s beauty: Lying in order to be accepted.
- Lester’s beauty(s): Interest in Angela, pursuing nostalgic activities in his youth like working at a fast food restaurant and smoking weed (he does a lot of interesting stuff in this movie, making the film feel more like a comedy at times).
- Ricky’s beauty: Relationship with Jane.
Maybe some of these things don’t seem beautiful, but that’s probably because they aren’t. They are temporary fixes trying to replace deep-seated problems; problems dealing with insecurity and a necessity to grow as a person.
So what are these character arcs all about, and why are they so important? American Beauty shows us relatable people in an almost unrelatable world. Not many people you know quit their job at 40-something to smoke pot, get a job at a fast food restaurant, and pursue their daughter’s friend. Yet we relate to these characters because of the emotions that drive their actions. Most of that drive comes from a lack of acceptance. American Beauty’s character arcs are important because they play out like their own little vignettes with a recurring theme about a search for healing or change.
I don’t see many movies nowadays that utilize side characters in a way that is three-dimensional and essential to the story like in American Beauty. Every time I see this film, it feels like I’m diving into a labyrinth of character study with new emotional ideas to think about around every corner.
Or, I could just ask myself: why didn’t Lester and the gang just talk to a psychiatrist?
Nah. Watching these characters have interpersonal meltdowns is more interesting.