American Beauty (directed by Sam Mendes), the 1999 award-winning film, gives the impression of having been conceived as a set of characters rather than relating a specific plot (Hentzi 48).
In other words, the characterization of the film, for all intense purposes, is the plot, as the focus of the film is not so much what happens to the film's characters as it is with how they react to the events that make up their lives. It is this aspect of the film that keeps its orientation at least somewhat positive.
The movie concerns the lives of two families that live side-by-side in the suburbs. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a"corporate drone" whose miserable career has become even moremiserable because of the attention paid to him by a newly arrived efficiency expert (Vineberg B10). Burnham's loveless marriage does not offer him any consolation for his lackluster working life, as his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening)is portrayed as the emasculating, career-obsessed enemyrather than as a loving spouse. Carolyn's energies are directly entirely towards advancing her mediocre real-estate career.
When she sleeps with her more successful competitor,it is not so much a sexual act as an "act of narcissism," ashe represents what she would like to become (Vineberg B10).
Jane, their teenage daughter, is caught up in the middle of her parents' animosity. The Burnhams' neighbors are the family of a retired Marine--Col. Fitts (Chris Cooper) and his wife Barbara (Allison Janney). Fitts is even more emotional remote from his teenage son than Lester is from Jane. He is prone to violent rages. His anger can be traced to his repressed homosexuality (Vineberg B10). Examining each of these characters in turn brings the overall film into focus concerning its principal messages and themes.
The principal protagonist of the film is Lester, who provides the Sunset Boulevard-style voiceover narration at the beginning of the film that lets the audience know his eventual fate. "My name is Lester Burnham. I'm 42 years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead" (Detweiler 1005). The bottom line of Lester's story is that he becomes obsessed with a friend of his daughter's, Angela (Mena Suvari).
As Hentzi points out, the "spectacle of a middle-aged man genuinely, if absurdly, rejuvenated by the illusions of freedom and fulfillment embodied by an under-aged girl is not exactly unfamiliar" (47). However, Lester achieves a level of maturity that is not often pictured in either literary or cinematic treatments of this scenario when he foregoes his opportunity to take advantage of the girl's emotional vulnerability.
At this point, Hentzi argues that Lester achieves a level of understanding that is similar to the speaker in Keats' "Nightingale," in that he is "bemused by the ability of his own fancy to create an unreachable paradise, but also brought to a greater humanity by the experience as a whole" (47).
Lester's infatuation with Angela is juxtaposed against his neglect of his daughter Jane...