The character I chose to analyze from American Beauty is Lester Burnham. Lester is a forty-year-old American man going through what seems to be a midlife crisis. Lester also shows signs of depression. In the opening scene of the movie, Lester says, “My name is Lester Burnham…In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet. And in a way, I’m dead already” (Mendes, 1999).
Throughout the movie, Lester’s many challenges are shown; he is not in a happy marriage and his daughter wants nothing to do with him.
I would describe Lester and Carolyn’s parenting style as uninvolved. Uninvolved parenting is described as parents who provide for their child’s basic needs and avoid spending time or becoming emotionally involved with them (Kail & Cavanaugh, pg. 187). While they argue about who is the better parent, all they really care about is themselves and how unhappy they are with their careers; they are not actively involved in their daughter’s life.
While Lester ends up quitting his job due to his unhappiness, Carolyn engages in an affair with another real estate agent. Due to this, their daughter despises them. Although Lester does not show his affection very well, Lester showed he cared about Jane when he asked Angela if she was happy and was glad to hear that she was in love.
Depression occurs in children, adults, adolescents and the elderly, and manifests as a combination of feelings of sadness, loneliness, irritability, worthlessness, hopelessness, agitation, and guilt.
Lester’s depression is shown through him saying “Both my wife and daughter think I’m a gigantic loser; and they’re right” (Mendes, 1999). This quote shows that he is depressed because he agrees with them that he is a loser. He feels lonely and worthless on top of the fact that he lacks a good relationship with his daughter
Lester was very unhappy with his job. Job satisfaction is a “positive feeling that results from an appraisal of one’s work” (Kail & Cavanaugh, pg. 316). After fourteen years of working as an advertising executive, he is tired of it and feels that he is underappreciated. When Lester is faced with almost being fired from his job, he retaliates by blackmailing his boss and quitting his job. When his boss calls him twisted, he replies with “Nope. I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose” (Mendes, 1999). This just further proves how unhappy Lester was with his job and his life. What led Lester to this point was reminiscing about the freedom he had in his youth. He wanted to go back to the days when he was just a teenager flipping burgers, smoking pot, having sex, driving a nice car and was happy doing whatever he wanted.
Our book says that instead of being referred to as a midlife crisis, it should instead be considered a ‘midlife correction’. A midlife correction is defined as “reevaluating one’s roles and dreams and making the necessary corrections” (Kail & Cavanaugh, pg. 354). Lester’s midlife correction consisted of quitting his job and not being a pushover anymore. In addition to all these challenges Lester faced with his career and family, he also became infatuated with his daughter’s friend, Angela. I think he was led to this because of his unhappiness with his marriage and the fact that his wife does not want to engage in sexual activity with him anymore. It is also what gave him confidence, led him to quit his job and take back control of his life.
Research shows that most couples are most satisfied at the beginning of their marriage, less satisfied until their children start leaving home then their satisfaction rises again later in life (Kail & Cavanuagh, pg. 295). Lester and Carolyn had been married for 20 years and had Jane, so they would be in the phase where couples are less satisfied until their kids leave home. Although I do not know if their relationship would have improved after Jane left the house. The book says that, “for some couples, satisfaction never rebounds and instead remains low; in essence, they have become emotionally divorced” (Kail & Cavanaugh, pg. 295). I believe that this concept applies to their marriage.
I think this film was accurate in displaying the unrealistic realities of the American Dream. On the outside, Lester was seen as someone who lived in the perfect neighborhood with the perfect family and had a perfect salary. It showed that all his wife cared about was materialistic objects and being in control. I also think that it could be an accurate depiction of a person his age and in his situation. Lester was so tired of being controlled by everything in his life that he wanted to take control and do what actually made him happy. He comes to the realization that he was not happy because he remained at a job he hated; only because it enabled him to purchase material objects that did not help himself or his family be happy. I think it could be argued that his reaction was both appropriate and maladaptive. Some of his decisions were definitely questionable but since he went through so many years being depressed and not standing up for himself, I think he needed to make some decisions on his own that made him happy. Lester got murdered in the end scene but if I were to give him advice, I would have told him to do what makes him happy. He was not consumed by living the American Dream like his wife was. I believe that many people would be able to relate to Lester in his experiences with work, materialism and how he was expected to conform to it all.
While I do not have personal experience that can relate to Lester, I know someone who does. My mom has been working at her job for ten years and is by no means in love with what she does. She only keeps her job because she keeps receiving raises and the money benefits our family. Without her job, we would not be able to get all of the stuff that we do.