American Beauty, a 1999 film directed by Sam Mendes, is a story about a stereotypical American family living the “American Dream”, or so thats what we are made to believe at first. The film starts off by portraying traditional stereotypes of what people believe is the “American Dream”, wife/husband, teenage daughter, a happy family. According to modernism, that is what the media leads us to believe we should strive for, the social norm so to say. And then, from modernism, we got this thing called post-modernism. Post-modernism came about, and we, as a society, began to analyze dominant cultural tropes. So, this image of the “perfect family” shortly comes to an end as it is obvious that this family living the so called “American Dream” is going from some pretty challenges of their own.
Metatheatricality: refers to a device in which a medium reflects or comments upon itself. For all of you English lit fans, remember Hamlet? The play within a play? American Beauty’s final scene, the cut of the plastic bag “dancing in the wind” essentially is a film within a film. Albeit it’s not a serious film, but it does well to remind us of the monologue that we heard a few scenes ago. All about the hope and beauty in the world and all that fun stuff. However, it’s tongue in cheek. It leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths because of what this cut followed: Lester being shot in the back of the head in his own home after shamelessly groping his daughter’s friend. Unlike other movies (i.e. Forest Gump), where the final monologue is supposed to be heartwarming, American Beauty defies that final moment.
Also: Forrest Gump and American Beauty can be related side by side because each questions the idea of common American values through off screen voice overs. While Forrest Gump has thoughtful, but simple ideas, his monologues fill audience members with sincere emotion. This is definitely not the case with American Beauty. While Lester’s monologues do say something about the human condition pertaining to America, his monologues come off as a kind of stand up routine.
Lester is an office worker who is going through a midlife crisis. When he and his wife go to see his teenage daughter, Jane, perform a cheer routine at a school game, it is as if he is struck by cupid when he sees his teenage daughters best friend! It was like some awkward love at first sight scene in a romance film, but so much more disturbing. He is completely in love (lust) with this teenage girl! (
Lester is seen as this shy and unassuming kind of guy who just gets “taken in” by a seemingly promiscuous teenage girl.
Žižek might say that this film removes responsibility that Lester, as a father, might have as an adult and shifts blame for any problems that he has onto his daughters friend.
As for desire, desire takes the form of Angela.
Lester wants her from the second he sees her and fantasizes about her often. He starts working out so he can “look good naked”. He also begins smoking weed and gets a job at a fast restaurant to “regain his youth and wake up from this dream he has”. However, once he realizes that Angela is a virgin he doesn’t act on his desire because that would be “wrong to steal beauty from her.”
As I mentioned earlier, the anticipation the audience gets about Lester sleeping with a teen girl is continuous. But, because he dies the realization of that desire is never fulfilled. Which agrees with Zizek’s point that cinema is perverted because it tells you how to desire, but never really gives you what to desire.