Theme and Structure in American Beauty
Alan Ball’s story of alienation and redemption in the bland but affluent suburbs of middle class America belongs in a long tradition of fictional works – running back to and including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – that question the values of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby was concerned with the plight of the rich; American Beauty focusses on the affluent white middle class. Little Miss Sunshine is a more recent addition to the catalogue, set in the realm of the struggling American petit bourgeoisie. Despite differences of class focus, all three works share the same controlling idea: money can’t buy happiness.
There is another, even older, idea at work in American Beauty, too: the Socratic notion that the unexamined life is not worth living. Lester Burnham’s examination of his life is in essence an examination of the materialist values of middle class America. The writer implicitly invites us to examine the assumptions of our own suburban lives, vicariously, through Lester, an Everyman. There is nothing special about Lester, which is precisely the point.
The title of the film is richly allusive, playing as it does off the fact that the rose variety named “American Beauty” is scentless and thornless, a powerful metaphor for Ball’s bleak vision of the contemporary American Dream - albeit limited to the white, middle class variety of that diverse species.
Ball and Mendes’ film exhorts us to look below the surface, below what seems to what really is. They are much concerned with the search for beauty, suggesting that therein lies meaning. But beauty, Ball’s story tells us, is to be found in unexpected places and only by those who seek it. The film is peopled with characters who are blind to it; this is a function of the life they live.
Use of the suburban setting is highly effective in reinforcing theme. Ball and Mendes skilfully build the story from a series of set pieces (mainly) within the confining spaces of suburban homes so close they almost touch - but never do. The houses are their own closed worlds, complete with their own tragedies and the aerial views of Lester’s world invite us to extrapolate outwards into all those other houses and their worlds. Setting becomes a metaphor for our alienation from each other; only love and violence bridge the gap between the Fitz’ house and the Burnham’s house. Even Ricky can’t bridge the gap directly – he has to use the camera to help him. The camera proves to be an ingenious dramatic device, enabling Ball to shift audience perspectives and draw us in to Ricky’s alternate view of the world around him.
At first glance, the appears to be in the multiplot domain, with a number of intersecting parallel stories in addition to the central story of Lester’s quest for the fountain of youth, each featuring their own protagonists: Janie and Ricky; Janie and Angela; Ricky and the Colonel; Caroline and the Real Estate King.
However, while the film definitely has elements of minimalist plot (to use McKee’s paradigm) – including an open ending for all characters other than Lester – each subplot is sheeted firmly to Lester’s story. Upon examination, they are revealed as less parallel plots than B, C, and D stories to Lester’s A story – his quest for his lost self.
Thus the film is closer to the protagonist-driven classical design than one might have at first thought. Lester is unequivocally the protagonist, and the voiceover device firmly reinforces this focus. We are in effect seeing the story through Lester’s eyes, and the voiceover returns at key moments in the story to remind us of this. There is never any doubt whose story this is, even when we follow other characters because we know that this is Lester’s story. We are seeing it posthumously through his eyes so we know that everything that happens must be tied to his fate in some way.
Moreover, American Beauty closely subscribes to the paradigm of the hero’s journey. There is the call to action (Lester has to justify his job to keep it) and the call is refused at first (he will go along with it because he feels he has no choice); a mentor/helper encourages him (Ricky Fitz), upon which he accepts the call (blackmails his employers and leaves his job) embarks on his quest, which is to find his lost self. He then enters another realm (the strange world of adolescent ego where sensual gratification is the only absolute) complete with a Circe-like siren temptress (Angela). Like many mythic heroes on their quest he first searches in the wrong places (his attempt to relive his adolescence). He is tested (by Caroline, Janie, and Colonel Fitz) and has the assistance of a helper (Ricky Fitz) before undergoing his penultimate test (his temptation with Angela). He passes the test and returns to the world with his prize – in Lester’s case, self knowledge (redemption) that flows as a boon to those around him – in this case only Angela (for whom he becomes a saviour) because the capricious Gods punish Lester by taking his life just as he has found it again – a not unfamiliar mythic irony.
The voiceover feeds into the mythic resonance of the story. Ball and Mendes place us at the shoulder of God, looking down on the world of mere mortals. That Lester’s fate is predetermined adds him to the mythic pantheon of doomed heroes.
The voiceover is also essential glue for the first 15 minutes of the film. The temporal Lester we meet is entirely passive – worse, he is as contemptible as his wife and daughter find him to be. The voiceover is what holds us with the film: the Lester of the voiceover is an altogether different person: wry, self-deprecating and clear-sighted. It is the tension between the Lester of the voiceover and the Lester on the screen that holds us with the promise of an intriguing journey. Because Lester obviously has a long way to go.
The price of giving away the denouement at the front of the film is an inevitable softening of the ending. It also risks reducing Lester’s journey to irrelevance. The writer and director thus has the challenge of holding onto the audience purely on the intrinsic interest of the journey. The question of who kills Lester and why is always there, of course, but it is too thin a thread to hold an audience – it helps, certainly, but by the climax there is really no doubt who has the motivation. The red herring of Janie and Ricky’s conversation about killing him isn’t convincing.
What holds us to Lester’s quest is Ball’s complex, resonant and deeply empathetic characterisation of his protagonist, supported by a beautifully paced structure that maintains an intensifying dramatic momentum to the inexorable subplot collisions that fuel the climax.
Despite the temptation to interpret the structure of the as a multi (as in more than 3) act piece, close scrutiny reveals a three act structure underlying the narrative: the inciting incident, Lester’s first sighting of Angela (page 16); the first turning point, Ricky and Lester smoking dope (page 35); the midpoint, Lester blackmailing Brad (page 52); the second act turning point, Lester starting his final run on the day he dies, accompanied by the prescient voiceover (page 77); the third act crisis, which kicks in with Lester zeroing in on Angela (pages 86-87); the climax, when Lester faces his moment of decision with Angela (page 98); and the resolution (pages 99-105).
The inciting incident at page 17 is pushing the envelope in terms of how late the film can leave it to get the main conflict underway, but its relative tardiness is balanced by Lester’s clear statement of intent on page 5: It’s never too late to get it back. Delivered almost as a threat, it is clear catalyst event that signals to the audience that things about to change, and in a big way.
Certainly there are other major story events that dramatically up the stakes: Lester learning that his job is on the line (page 7) is a call to action/adventure that Lester refuses (and which acts as the story catalyst); Caroline catching him masturbating in bed (page 41), leading to the worm turning and a first victory for Lester over Caroline; Lester’s last chance with Caroline on the couch (page 69) leading to their final, furious estrangement. However, I would argue that these are not true act turning points, nor - in case of Lester learning his job is on the line - an inciting incident. The inciting incident creates the conflict that sets the protagonist on their journey – Lester’s job being under pressure does increase the pressure on the character, but it doesn’t change anything immediately, whereas his encounter with Angela in the gym (page 16) has an immediate and dramatic effect and sets in motion the conflict that motivates his quest. Likewise, Lester smoking dope with Ricky is the beginning of his quest to recover his lost self (even if he does at first misinterpret this as a quest for his lost youth) – it is there explicitly in his reminiscence about his burger flipping days. Nothing is the same for Lester after this scene. It is his point of departure, with Ricky as his hero’s journey “helper”, his guide to the other world to which he must travel. The later page 41 confrontation with Caroline in the bedroom is an important staging post on his journey, but it doesn’t turn the story in a new direction. This event is, in story terms, a progressive complication, with Lester continuing on the path he set himself with Ricky on page 33.
In the same way, the “last chance” scene with Caroline on the couch (page 69) is a major story event, a point of no return, but remains part of the journey chosen by Lester on page 33 and leading us with irresistible and ever increasing dramatic momentum to the climax.
The fantasy sequences act as the dramatic engine driving Lester’s quest. Ball cleverly blurs the line between Lester’s real and unreal worlds, with the cental motif of the scentless, thornless rose informing the subtext of every fantasy scene.
Through this structure, Lester’s character arc moves from passive/lost in the first act, embarking on his quest in the second act and gaining our respect, but increasingly as an antihero, before his final test from which he emerges redeemed as an heroic figure, his quest (self transformation) complete. It is a compelling arc and an intensely valued-charged journey, but Ball succeeds in maintaining our empathy for the character even when his anti-hero behaviour is most the to fore (in his act 2 interactions with Caroline, Janie, and his predatory encounter with Angela (“You like…muscles?”). While Ball certainly pushes his character as far into anti-hero territory as he can, there are limits. Even though we sympathise with Lester’s rebellion; middle aged men preying on 17 year olds is definitely, if actualised via sex, a bridge too far for a mainstream audience.
The subplots each have their own, deftly worked story arc and Ball seamlessly integrates each with Lester’s A story at the climax. The delicately realised and thematically evocative love story between Janie and Ricky provides essential light and optimism in a story that would otherwise be relentlessly bleak.
The subplot of Ricky’s relationship with his father is less convincing; why, we have to ask, is Ricky still there given his commercial astuteness, financial base, and his singular, independent cast of mind. Perhaps it is his relationship with his mother, perhaps a complex interdependence with his father that holds him, perhaps his age. But if this is the case Ball leaves it to the audience to make these inferences, because they are not articulated in the narrative.
A similar question mark hangs over Lester’s relationship with Janie. The onscreen Lester we meet at the opening of the film is, at worst, inept. The hostility with which Janie regards him and the level of mutual alienation between her and her father feels out of all proportion to this characterisation, and if Lester is less harmless, then we certainly don’t see it. Perhaps the writer means us to place the blame on Janie’s teenage angst, but this is not enough, and the venom of Janie’s hostility at times feels contrived for dramatic effect.
Ball succeeds in creating a set of diverse but always empathetic characters (the Real Estate King being an exception – but we are not meant to like him). Lester and Ricky stand out as intriguing and exceptionally well-realised characters; and Angela, with all her contradictions, resonates with teenage insecurity. No matter their outward masks, Ball makes us feel the pain of his characters by taking us below the persona they present to the world – Colonel Fitz, with his forbidden longings and love for his son he can’t express; Caroline with her failing business and eggshell self esteem. But a word of caution here: both Caroline and the Colonel sail close to being representational “types” and both parts require deft and textured performances to avoid parody.
In particular, the crucial scene where the Colonel kisses Lester is a concern. Somehow this seems too familiar – the military hardman who buries his homosexuality in ferocious regimes of discipline and intolerance in a desperate attempt to deny his own self. It is illustrative of the role of story as metaphor that the Colonel is the one character drawn from life, based on Alan Ball’s father.
Ball achieves simultaneously bleak and uplifting script – no mean feat. It is a great loss that the reputation of the film has been damaged by subsequent revelations about Kevin Spacey’s predatory behaviour, given that he was just one part of an extensive and blameless artistic endeavour.