American Beauty
A movie review by Peter Hata

American Beauty is one of the most deeply troubling and powerful movies I’ve ever seen. The movie is the autobiography of Lester Burnham (played by actor Kevin Spacey), an advertising executive experiencing a midlife crisis of epic proportions, caught up in the rat-race of life. At the beginning of the movie, we hear Lester say in a voiceover, "This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet…and in a way, I’m dead already." Then, we see several scenes that indicate both Lester’s wife Carolyn and his daughter Jane have lost any respect for him. We hear Lester say in another voiceover, "Both my wife and daughter think I’m a gigantic loser…and they’re right. I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this…sedated."
In addition to these characters, other key characters in American Beauty are:
-Ricky, the unusual teenage boy next door who always seems to be filming people around him—sometimes secretly—with his video recorder. But Ricky also is able to see the beauty in life. Ricky and Lester’s daughter Jane become great friends. They have a lot in common, as both are like outcasts among their peers.
-Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts, the strict and cruel disciplinarian, whom we later learn is a closet homosexual.
-Jane’s beautiful high school friend, Angela, who seems to be a model of success and confidence. But later in the film, we realize she is really even more insecure than Jane.

As the movie progresses, we see Lester become increasingly alienated from his advertising job, and from his family—and increasingly obsessed with Angela. Eventually, Lester quits his job because, as he says, "I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose." So Lester becomes a kind of dropout, and at the same time, strikes up a friendship with Ricky, who has moved in next door. They find they have a lot in common, and Ricky turns him on to some marijuana.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, Ricky is showing Jane what he calls, "The most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed." In this scene, Ricky shows Jane a video he made of a small plastic bag floating above the sidewalk on a windy day. The camera follows it as the wind carries it in a circle, sometimes making it suddenly dart high in the air, sometimes letting it float gently to the ground. Ricky says:

"It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And 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." Then Ricky says, "Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it…and my heart is going to cave in."

At first, our response to Ricky is that he is a rather strange boy. But as we get to know and understand him better, and especially in this particular clip, I think we come to appreciate that he is able to see something we aren’t seeing. We realize that we’re just like Lester, we’re sedated and we’ve lost something, but we don’t know exactly what it is.

From this point in the film, things degenerate for Lester’s wife Carolyn—she’s broken up with her lover, another real estate agent, and she and Lester have had a terrible argument about their failed marriage. She becomes so distraught she is seriously planning on killing Lester. Things also degenerate for Frank, Ricky’s father. Through a series of accidental circumstances, Frank wrongly believes Lester is really gay and is having sex with his son Ricky. First, Frank violently beats up Ricky for this. Ricky, knowing it is untrue but also knowing it is useless to argue with his father, decides to admit it. Frank commands Ricky to leave for good. Then, in a very powerful scene, we see Frank go over to visit Lester while Lester is working out with weights in his garage. We think he’s going to "get" Lester. Instead, we are shocked to see Frank try to kiss Lester. Lester pushes him away and tells him, "Whoa, I’m sorry, you’ve got the wrong idea…"

Following this is a scene in which circumstances have placed Lester alone with Angela. In this scene, as he is about to seduce Angela, which of course, he’s been dreaming about since he first met her, she suddenly admits to him she is a virgin. His smile quickly fades as he realizes she is not the sex queen he has been fantasizing her to be, but really just a vulnerable and nervous child. He sees her for what she really is, not as what he wished her to be. He suddenly comes to his senses and realizes that he should not be going through with this. He realizes that what he really wants is not Angela. He really just wants to live the life he already has. Humiliated by the realization of what she’s almost done, Angela starts to cry and Lester gently tries to comfort her. After they put their clothes back on, Lester makes her a sandwich in the kitchen.

With both of them more relaxed now, and since Angela is Jane’s friend, Lester asks her how Jane is, "Is she happy?," he asks. Angela tells him Jane is happy, and is in love with Ricky. This makes Lester genuinely happy; he smiles and says, "Good for her." Then Angela asks Lester, "How are you?" but the question takes him aback. No one had asked him that for a long time. After thinking about it, he says, "I’m great." He suddenly realizes that he already has a great life. He picks up and stares at a photograph of his family in happier times, taken at an amusement park. With a smile on his face, he quietly says to himself, "Man oh man…man oh man oh man…" Then we see the barrel of a gun come to his head. It turns out that Colonel Fitts, having exposed his homosexuality to Lester, has come to the conclusion his secret must die with Lester…

To me, though there are several key characters, it’s clear the focal point of this movie to me is Lester Burnham. Specifically, it is Lester’s self-discovery that occurs in the scenes with Angela. Throughout the movie, Lester has had several "insights" into his failed career, his failed marriage, his inablity to communicate with Jane, his lust for Angela, etc. But in the scenes with Angela, I think for the first time, Lester sees into himself more deeply, beyond his lust, beyond his self-pity. In a sense, he sees beyond his ego. I think he comes to the realization that, as we might say in Buddhism, all along he’s been under the delusions of what his ego and desire have made him think he wants. What is it that he suddenly then is able to see? He realizes that it isn’t Angela that he wants or needs. He already has a great life, and that all along, he’s simply been "asleep" to it. He realizes what a fool he’s been, that all along, it wasn’t his wife or his daughter that were "the problem," but he himself. This insight into one’s own responsibility is the hardest thing to get in Buddhism. It only comes to us through the working of vast powers beyond our tiny ego-self. And it is a humbling, negative experience. But at the same time, it is positive, like "waking up," like appreciating for the first time how lucky we are to be alive. In our Shin Tradition, I think we would say Lester reaches the "other shore" of enlightenment. In the end of the movie, Lester is speaks to us in a final voiceover, as someone who has reached the "other shore." I feel that the thoughts and feelings Lester shares with us here are deeply relevant to all of us. To me, his words represent nothing less than the essential teaching of Buddhism, but expressed in a modern and contemporary way:

"I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all. It stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars…and yellow leaves, from the maple trees that lined my street…or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper…and the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird…and Janie…and Carolyn.
"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me…but 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 onto 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. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure…But don’t worry…you will someday."

Namu Amida Butsu,
Peter Hata

Real World Menu | Home