American Beauty is the story of Lester Burnham, a man who has settled into an unhappy marriage and makes no effort to improve communication with his depressed teenage daughter, Jane. When Jane brings home a beautiful girlfriend for a sleepover and Lester overhears her telling Jane that she would gladly sleep with him, if he built up his arms that is. Thus begins Lester’s complete transformation. He starts working out, he quits his awful boring job and stands up to his superiors that have bullied him for years. When he brings his newfound attitude into his home, it begins to spread to his wife and daughter and we see the breakdown of the nuclear family, picket-fence ideal.
The American Dream that the Burnhams seem to have achieved brings them no joy or happiness. They are financially secure, but at what cost? Caroline is constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown if she is forced to relinquish control of anything whether it has to do with her job or her home life. Lester is mopey and miserable and impotent in every aspect of his life. Jane is under-stimulated, frustrated, and bored with her surroundings both at home and at school. In their efforts to maintain this American ideal, none of them are afforded the opportunity to truly live.
Other characters in the film struggle with maintaining the impression of American perfection as well, like the Burnhams’ new neighbors, with the militaristic father too afraid to face his own sexuality, the mother who presents a perfect home but is unable to interact with her family, and the son who hides behind a video camera living through the captured lives of others rather than making a life for himself. And then there’s Angela, Jane’s friend. Her attention is focused entirely on her appearance, making herself the picture of what Western culture considers beautiful, and for all her confidence in her appearance, she does not feel valuable unless someone wants her.
When these characters stop trying to serve others, i.e. society, and begin to focus on what they themselves need or want, then they achieve happiness and peace and can begin to share that with those around them and improve their lives as well. Caroline can now care for her family rather than try to micromanage them. Lester can communicate with others and provide them with sound advice and comfort. Angela develops self-worth and passes it on to Lester. Jane and Ricky help each other see interest in the world around them.
It is only when an expression of vulnerability is met with rejection, and society has previously broken down any walls of confidence to protect him, does Colonel Fitts react destructively. Throughout his life, he was told that he was lesser, both as a soldier, and as a homosexual. The rest of the characters have lived in a field of praise for their actions and are better able to handle the disdain and backlash they encounter in their rebirths, but for Colonel Fitts, it is the breaking point.
As a culture, we build up ideas and generalized concepts, ignoring the individual. Society fights against the individual when one tries to discover or establish oneself. We like people to fit into a sterotype and to be content in their roles; they are easier to control that way. When the individual finds themself and finds their power, they become dangerous. In the words of Rivers Cuomo, “Let’s get dangerous!”