Existentialism: American Beauty
American Beauty is a movie that sets in suburban America. The story is about Lester, who is a middle-aged writer working in a magazine company. He was having a midlife crisis where he felt lonely and numbed by continuous unchanging routine of his everyday life. In the movie, his wife portrayed as a successful real estate agent, but she was also going through her own midlife crisis in both her career and personal life. Lester’s daughter, Jane Bumham had alienated her parents and was going through puberty.
They have a new neighbor who is a U. S. Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts, and he has a son, Ricky Fitts, who is a drug dealer. Lester was going to get fired from his company that he had worked for fourteen year. Lester managed to cut a deal by threatening the manager to give him a year’s worth of salary or else he would distribute the gossip news, which would sabotage the company. One day, he and his wife went to see their daughter’s cheerleading dance and during the performance Lester saw Jane’s friend Angela Hayes. He then starts having fantasies of her.
On the other hand, his wife was also having an affair with a successful colleague. Disregarding his wife’s life, Lester started to make changes in his life after hearing Angela complimented him and suggested that if he worked out, she would like him even more. Therefore, he started working out after being fired from his job, and got a new job at a fast food restaurant. During work, he found that his wife was having an affair and he asked her for a divorce. On the other hand, the marine corporal, Frank, has trust issues with his son, since Ricky had a history of using drugs (smoking weed).
One day, Frank starts to get suspicious about Ricky’s actions. Then when Lester called Ricky to get more marijuana, Frank saw them getting together in a room. He thought that they were sexually involved. In reality, they were just smoking weed. When Ricky went home, Frank abused him and mistakenly believed that he was homosexual, which caused him to kick Ricky out of the house. So Ricky decided to ask Jane to runaway with him to New York. At the same time, when Lester and Angela was getting intimate with each other, she suddenly confessed that she was a virgin.
Lester realized that he shouldn’t be taking advantage of her and Angela started crying, so he comforted her. After the incident, both of them bonded and shared their problems. On the last scene of the movie, it showed Lester holding an old picture of his family reminiscing the past then Frank suddenly showed up with a gun and shot him. The movie, American Beauty, portrayed many existential themes from philosophers like Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In the beginning of the movie, Lester indicates he lived like a dead man.
He goes through the same routine everyday, which is similar to Franz Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa in the short story “Metamorphosis”. Before Gregor’s transformation into a metamorphosis, he was a salesman for a long period of time where he felt that had lost his character, goals and even estranged himself from his family. Lester and Gregor have committed themselves to the society, which caused them to be alienated by their families. In the beginning of the movie, Lester’s daughter critiqued her father as a “loser” and his wife also looked down on him.
Gregor had similar situations, he was also alienated because his job required him to travel, and therefore, he couldn’t spend time with his family. According to Kafka, one has to go through alienation because that awakens us to blossom into a new life. He believes that an individual have to balance themselves between individuality and society. Even though Gregor’s transformation gave him a new life, it was too late for him to live for himself. On the other hand, Lester was lucky enough to experience the change when he heard Angela’s suggestion to get fit.
This tip encouraged Lester to adjust his dull and melancholy life. He starts working out and live for himself, instead of living up to other people’s standards. Kafka’s view of existentialism is that an individual has the responsibility to find balance between leisure and work. Lester’s character has some similarities as Kafka’s life. Kafka was employed at an insurance company, where he had experienced the suffering from working in the dull cubical office. He used writing as a way to escape from the tedious life he had, and it was the only method that could explore his creativeness.
Even though Kafka was not an existentialist, his writing depicted many existential themes and shared similar thoughts with other philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche is a philosopher in the late 18th century. He has a great impact towards existentialism. His existential theme is about individuality and constructing identity. Through his book called Gay Science, Nietzsche indicated that there were more liberation and freedom after religious wars and persecution ended. He believed that people were getting detached with religion.
Even though the movie “American Beauty” did not have any religious related themes, it still portrayed the theme of liberation. It was freedom that saved Lester from being drowned by his miserable life, especially when he was being disregarded by his wife and alienated from his daughter. In addition, in the end of the movie, Ricky Fitts, the neighbor’s son was released from his father because of a misunderstanding. He was trapped under his abusive father’s rules and control. When Ricky was living under his father, he was like the “last man” in Nietzsche’s short story: Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The “last man” lacks passion and has no drive: “ … they do not like to hear the world ‘contempt’ applied to them. Let me then address their pride. Let me speak of them of what is the most contemptible; but that is the last man” (Soloman, 73). Lester also has similar characteristics of the “last man”. Before his transformation, he even confessed that he was living a life of a “dead man”. Nietzsche saw the “last man” among the middle class and he was afraid that they would be suffocated by the dreadful office space. This greatly relates to Lester’s working environment and the suburban area where he lived.
Everyday felt like yesterday, nothing changes. There is no creativity or passion in Lester’s life and Nietzsche believed that people should be pushed and encouraged to break the cycle. Lester’s transformation speaks of Nietzsche’s existentialist theme: “we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ fell, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead. ’ As if a new dawn shone on us…” (68). The “new dawn” that Nietzsche mentions in his book have similar portrayal in the movie, which is Lester’s transformation of his new life. From a miserable and coward person, Lester changed into a new courageous and free spirited individual.
He was able to confront his wife and make his own decisions without being afraid of her looking down on him: “It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about” (American Beauty). Overall, Nietzsche’s theme reveals that people have the ability to make their own decision and put their destiny into their own hands just like what Lester did with his life. Similar to Kafka and Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre also emphasized the importance of individuality.
He believes that “existence comes before essence,” people creates their own destiny and it is not God that controls our fate (206). He also explained that human nature did not emerge because God created us. Sartre did not believe in God; therefore, he believed human created the existence of human nature, like how Lester altered his life. Sartre also indicated that individuals should take responsibility towards their actions. Lester broke away from the society and left his past life to construct a new character without other people to disapprove his decisions.
However, he also threw away all the responsibility as a father and husband. Lester quit his job and got a lower salary job, which left his wife in charge of the mortgage. Even before the transformation, the relationship between Lester and his daughter drifted apart causing them to ignore each other. He failed to take a responsibility as a father and nurture his child instead he tried to flirt with his child’s friend. From Sartre’s book Existentialism is a Humanism, he wrote: “Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole” (208).
He believed that an individual’s action could have a huge impact on others, just like how the neighbor, Colonel Frank Fitts killed Lester at the end of the movie. Frank has to live carry that guilt forever. It was his decision to kill and therefore it would be his responsibility to accept the blame. However the movie did not indicate what consequences Frank will be facing, or what kind of responsibility he will get after the murder. The director leaves the decision to the audience to decide what his fate is going to be. Lester did mess up his family and take no responsibility during his physical and mental transformation.
In the end of the movie, when Angela, his daughter’s friend, told him that she was a virgin, he realized that he could not take advantage of her. This message reminded him that she was just a teenager that needed attention. He took a parental responsibility by comforting her and explored her frustrations, which applied to Sartre’s theme of taking responsibility while making alternations in life. Through out the movie, American Beauty, it has exposed many existential themes that connected to multiple philosophers including Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
All of them emphasized the importance of individuality, passion and creativity, which was depicted in the movie, especially on the main character, Lester. He altered his life and cured his mid-life crisis. It was through existentialism where he was released from the trap of society and the controlled environment. In the end of the movie, every character found an answer towards the purpose of life. Even though Lester’s life ended getting shot in the head, he was actually happier than he was before and managed to live the life he wanted.
- Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 2nd. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.