I am pretty sure that behind American Beauty’s is an exercise in the Buddhist understanding of liberation. Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, is a jaded middle-aged suburban man, unhappy with his job and his marriage. At this point, the viewer might be led into thinking that American Beauty is typical Hollywood fare where the protagonist has to discover himself to defy lame old suburbia. This, thankfully, is not the case.
Lester does try to pursue his desire and experience all the novelty the world has to offer. Is he going to find truth and love and all that? He thinks so, and it seems like that. In that iconic scene, Lester fantasizes about Angela (Mina Suvari) with falling red rose petals falling. We see the color red used similarly throughout the film as a symbol for defiant passion. The Real Estate King, Buddy has red advertisements, and he is having an affair with Lester’s wife, who is defying the repression of suburban expectations. The free, directionless spirit of red is highlighted with the scene where the plastic bag is dancing on the wind in front of a red wall. Red is perhaps the color of the energy that defies civilization itself, in all of its beautiful and irrational glory.
When Lester is presented with the opportunity to have sex with Angela, she reveals that she is a virgin, despite her pretenses. Angela represents the insatiability of desire – even when she is totally his, Lester remains unsatisfied. He doesn’t even want her now, thinking of her as an innocent child. His fantasy of satisfaction set the bar far higher than could be reached.
The attempts to engage passion lead to bad results. This is ultimately expressed by the neighbor, Frank, in a homoerotic-turned-violent moment with Lester. Rather than the repression imposed by his environment, Frank’s repression derives from his futile attempt to control that which cannot be controlled, whether it be his son, society, or his neighbors. Lester is shot dead and achieves some sort of analog to Nirvana. He is free from the meaningless context that he existed in and also free from the consequences of destructive passion, yet can appreciate beauty without attachment. Before credits role Lester sees past his delusional fantasy of this young girl, with the music playing with its lyrics “castles burning” alluding to Lester’s false expectations of the “American Beauty” burning away to reveal the unglamorous interior.
The suburban grind is a prison, but so is bohemianism. They are competing systems of trying to sate insatiable material appetites. Breaking out of routine and expressing yourself by dancing on a table, or something, doesn’t save you. Hollywood was wrong. Liberation isn’t a carefree journey of self-fulfillment