The Pursuit of Happiness in American Beauty

“I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel like this…sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.” (Mendes) In American Beauty, the life of Lester Burnham is cut short in the midst of his hunt to rediscover true joy in his life. The Burnham family, as well as their friends and neighbors, view happiness as a solution to mask and hide the daily misery they feel. In American Beauty, the audience discovers what happiness means to each member of the Burnham household. Carolyn and Jane both find happiness in career and relationships, while Lester begins his pursuit to end the numbing feelings he endures and sets out to find true happiness.

Throughout American Beauty, Carolyn Burnham, the materialistic and uptight wife of Lester, finds her joy in her job, her home, and eventually, another man. From the moment she is introduced, Carolyn’s desire to play the part of the perfect housewife with the perfect house is made clear as she carefully and meticulously clips the roses with her shears and matching gardening clogs. She finds her joy in perfection. This aim for false pleasure carries over into her career. As she and Lester enter her business event, she pleads with him to pretend to be happy saying, “My company sells an image. It’s part of my job to live that image.” (Mendes) Carolyn desperately holds onto hope that by being successful in her career, she will find her own true happiness. Later, to spite her husband, Carolyn begins an affair with her business rival, Buddy Kane. While this tryst satisfies her immediate needs, joy and happiness are still far from her reach. Carolyn Burnham holds the notion that if she feigns joy, she will eventually find joy; that she must fake it, to make it. But as the audience comes to find for Carolyn, nothing truly satisfies those feelings in her life.

Unlike her mother, Jane Burnham begins the film in a constant state of unhappiness. Joy is not something attainable or desirable for the young, high school girl which is made clear in the way she speaks and the way she dresses. Jane’s dissatisfaction with life and her family is made clear when she confides in her new boyfriend, Ricky Fitts, that her father’s pursuit for joy and to find himself is pathetic and that she wishes “somebody should just put him out of his misery.” (Mendes) Jane begins to find some pleasure in the assurances Ricky gives her. During the start of the film, Jane makes her displeasures with her body and image clear. But when she meets Ricky, his self-assurance and high opinion of her helps to fix the damage done in her life when he tells her, “I can’t believe you don’t know how beautiful you are.” (Mendes) While Jane begins American Beauty as a self-conscious, young girl, with the aid of Ricky, she begins to find her joy in her romantic relationship and the confidence it gives her.

For Lester Burnham, happiness is something he once knew and he spends the film, as well as the rest of his life, in search of finding that joy once again. American Beauty begins with Lester’s introduction of himself saying, “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.” (Mendes) At this point, Lester’s lack of happiness in his life has left him feeling lost, hopeless, and dead inside so he sets out to reclaim his life:

Lester is a shadow of a man, hounded by an employer preparing to cut him loose and tormented by a materialistic, success-driven wife and hopelessly selfish daughter, both of whom regard him as a loser. Faced by these obstacles, he determines to alter his miserable existence by quitting his job, aligning himself with his neighbor’s drug-dealing son, and fantasizing about a sexual relationship with Jane’s flirtatious classmate, Angela. (Lorence, 196-197)

Lester’s quest for happiness leads him down a juvenile path towards joy. He quits his career job to start work at a fast-food restaurant which removes all sense of responsibility from his life. This lack of responsibility allows him to look inside of himself and find what his true desires are and what would make him most happy. His entire life has been focused on his family and walking the straight and narrow line that finally, at 42 years old, he throws away that notion to be a little selfish in his life and recapture the bliss he once knew.

In the lives shown in American Beauty, the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal. For some, like Carolyn Burnham, that joy is found in materials and her career. For others, like Jane Burnham, that joy is found in others and the confidence they give you. But for lives like, Lester Burnham, happiness is finally found when expectations are removed and the idea of true joy is captured. While Lester’s life is cut short in his quest, his death should not be viewed as tragic. Because unlike everyone in his life, Lester Burnham found his joy and pursued it until his last breath. The beauty Lester finally finds is happiness and freedom.