“American Beauty” – Identifying the Throughline, from Michael McVey, Skiffleboom.com
Film as Art
Week 10 – Identifying the Throughline, Assignment 10
Michael McVey – Bunker Hill Community College
April 27, 2010
Watch American Beauty. Identify the super-objective of a central character and describe this character’s throughline in detail.
American Beauty tells the story of Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey. Lester is a middle-aged, unhappy suburbanite. He feels his American life is a joyless chore, and sets out to reclaim happiness. Lester’s pursuit of happiness is his super-objective.
The opening scenes establish Lester’s ennui. He has strained, distant relationships with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane. The gay couple living next door, Jim and Jim are the only “normal” people Lester knows. Lester hates his job. At work, Lester is largely unappreciated, and is in danger of being let go by his undeserving superior Brad. Quitting this job will become one of Lester’s sub-objectives. At home, Carolyn is hypercritical and unsympathetic to Lester’s plight. She perceives him as a loser. Jane hides behind a wall of sarcasm.
Lester attends a local high school basketball game. His daughter Jane cheerleads. Lester sees Jane’s friend Angela, and is immediately smitten. Angela becomes the object of Lester’s desire, and he begins fantasizing about her.
Lester steals Angela’s number from Jane’s bedroom. He calls Angela, but hangs up immediately when Jane exits the shower. This is Lester’s first step towards his super-objective. He awkwardly attempts to contact Angela to begin a relationship – Lester associates having Angela with happiness. Sleeping with Angela becomes a critical sub-objective for Lester’s super-objective.
Later, Lester and Carolyn bicker at a party. When Carolyn flocks over to local real estate magnate Buddy King, Lester makes an awkward, honest comment. This embarrasses Carolyn, and Lester further embarrasses her with a protracted kiss in front of Buddy. Lester starts to cut loose a bit, taking another step towards his super-objective.
Lester’s young neighbor Ricky approaches him at the bar. Ricky and Lester retire outside for some recreational smoking. Lester enjoys himself and makes a connection with Ricky. He admires Ricky’s self-control and perceived freedom. Lester begins defining his super-objective based on some of Ricky’s qualities.
Jane brings Angela over to her house. Aware that Lester is fixated, Angela decides to flirt with him. Lester quickly falls into a semi-erotic fantasy. Later, Lester overhears Angela talking about him with Jane. She playfully teases Jane about her dad’s fixation. Lester hears Angela mention that he would be sexy if he worked out. Later, Lester goes into the garage, finds some weights, and works out in the buff. He is clearly motivated to get fit. Lester equates his fitness with Angela’s attraction. Fitness becomes a sub-objective, as it may result in attracting Angela, culminating with Lester’s super-objective.
Carolyn catches Lester masturbating during a nighttime fantasy. Lester defends his right to masturbate, as his wife does not service him. They argue about their mutual sexual frustration, and Carolyn brings up divorce. Lester quickly turns the tables on her, ending the argument. Lester seizes control from Carolyn and does not back down from her criticisms. This fosters the self-control needed for Lester to achieve his super-objective.
Lester starts running with Jim and Jim. He goes over to Ricky’s to buy weed. Getting high is a new sub-objective for Lester – it helps him to relax and enjoy life. Lester fondly recalls his youth to Ricky: flipping burgers, partying and having sex. Later, Lester smokes a joint in the garage while lifting weights. When Carolyn confronts him on his new social deviance, he retorts, telling her to leave. Lester’s exercise, habitual pot use, and devil-may-care attitude reflect his efforts pursuit of happiness (through irresponsibility).
Lester writes a sarcastic and biting performance review. Brad tries to fire Lester, but Lester counters by threatening blackmail and sexual harassment. Lester refuses to be a victim, turning the tables on his thankless employers. Lester gets a year’s salary as a severance package, and triumphantly leaves. Lester separates himself from the working rabble, gaining a degree of freedom.
Later in the evening, Lester eats dinner with his wife and daughter. Lester and Carolyn bicker, and Jane is forced to listen. When Jane tries to leave, Lester exerts authority, and Jane sits back down. Carolyn rants hysterically, refusing to quit. Again Lester exerts himself, smashing a plate against the wall. This silences Carolyn. Much of Lester’s earlier misery stemmed from his passivity. In this scene, Lester works on the sub-objective of reclaiming his familial authority. Lester exhibits more self-control, and he moves towards his super-objective.
Lester enjoys the spoils of his severance by purchasing a 1970 Pontiac Firebird. He also buys several toys. When Carolyn berates Lester yet again, Lester defuses her through compliments. He makes a move on her, and we sense a happier past. But before he can round second base, Carolyn breaks the mood, afraid Lester might spill beer on the couch. Lester cannot overcome the sub-objective of salvaging his family life. His wife’s obsession with material objects and appearances hurts their relationship. He gets angry with her material worship and chases her away. Despite acquiring material objects for himself, Lester is not happy.
We flash forward to Lester running through the neighborhood. He looks much happier and healthier. While Lester makes a health shake in his kitchen, he learns Angela will be sleeping over. Jane is embarrassed by her father’s obvious attraction to Angela, and shares her disgust. Lester calls his daughter a bitch, just like her mother. This hurts Jane, and she leaves. Lester still struggles with the sub-objective of normalizing his family relationships, which prevent him from obtaining his super-objective.
Later, Lester catches Carolyn having an affair with Buddy King. At the drive-thru Burger joint Lester works, Lester surprises the cheating couple. Carolyn sees Lester has been working a menial job, but Lester finds the work invigorating; there is little responsibility. Lester calmly dismisses Carolyn and Buddy. By cheating on Lester, she has relinquishes any authority over him. From his perspective, Carolyn’s transgression is liberating. Instead of feeling remorse or anger, Lester puts her affair in context of his super-objective. Not able to resolve his sub-objective with Carolyn, Lester is inadvertently given the liberation he needs to continue towards independence and self-control.
After Lester buys more pot from Ricky, Angela and Jane run into him in the kitchen. Angela flirts with Lester. Repulsed, Jane runs from the room. Lester flirts back, but Angela is clearly nervous, and goes to find Jane. Lester’s object of desire, seemingly the key to his super-objective, runs away from him.
Later, while working out in the garage, Lester is confronted by Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts. The Colonel has mistakenly confused the relationship between his son and Lester. Thinking Lester is a homosexual, the repressed Colonel Fitts kisses Lester. Stunned, Lester gently rebuffs his advances. Overwhelmed, the Colonel stumbles into the rainy night. Lester’s calmly handles the awkward situation, suggesting comfort in his own skin. This grace suggests Lester is ever closer to realizing his super-objective.
Lester goes for a beer in the kitchen, and encounters Angela, sitting alone. She tells him about her fight with Jane, revealing to Lester that she thinks him sexy. Lester and Angela get intimate, and they begin kissing. Lester is within moments of having Angela, the catalyst of his super-objective. Lester takes off her clothes, and as they are about to make love, Angela tells Lester she is a virgin. At first he think she is joking, but he quickly realizes that Angela is sincere. In that moment, Angela stops becoming a fantasy and becomes a person to Lester. He covers her with a blanket and comforts her. In this moment, Lester embraces responsibility.
Throughout the film, Lester sheds the coils of societal expectation. Irresponsibility felt like the key to Lester’s super-objective of happiness. Ultimately, Lester balances out his selfish impulses with genuine care for others. He breaks through his lustful delusions to see an inexperienced, frightened teenager before him, and he gives her comfort and affection. Lester and Angela sit in the kitchen, where Angela eats. Lester asks her about Jane. Angela tells him that Jane is in love. This touches Lester. For the first time in the film, Lester is genuinely interested in his daughter. He is a father reborn. Angela asks how Lester feels. Lester replies “great.” It is this moment that Lester achieves his super-objective. He feels genuine happiness for the first time in ages.
Angela leaves the room for a moment, and Lester is murdered. His body lies on the table, a smile etched on his face. Even though the scene is bloody, there is a poetic beauty in Lester’s smile. Moments before his death, Lester discovers that honest love and affection for others is essential to happiness. Lester recovers from his journey of irresponsibility and realizes that happiness requires balance between selfishness and selflessness. His final moments are happy: Lester attains his super-objective.