Humanities Information

A Look at the Heart of American Beauty

Sam Mendes' darkly comic portrayal of suburbia in his first movie, American Beauty (1999) takes a hard look at what happens when you've accomplished the American Dream only to realize that it isn't enough. Lester, the film's anti-hero wakes up one morning deep in a mid life crisis and decides that he wants something more then the life he has carved out for himself and proceeds to search for that something and in the process, disrupts the lives of those around him, particularly his wife Caroline. Through his use of color and surrealist elements Mendes shows how passionless and unhappy Caroline and Lester are in their seemingly perfect world and how true happiness lies not in doing what's expected or in material goods but in finding the beauty in being true to yourself.

The color red and roses are a symbol of passion and desire and Mendes uses the combination to symbolize the lack of passion and in turn the misplaced desires in the character's lives. Caroline, Lester's wife is a woman who on the outside seems to have it all: a family, a big house, and a great career. But we soon find out that nothing in Caroline's world is perfect except for the red roses she takes great pride and care in growing.

These roses can be found everywhere: lining the yard, on end tables, the center piece on the dining room table and even in the home she's trying to sell. The roses represent the passion that Caroline has lost for life but can't admit she no longer has. She is a deeply unhappy woman who tries to mask that unhappiness by projecting forth an image of perfection. She believes that if she thinks positive then everything will be okay. She listens to and recites daily affirmations to herself to keep up her positive mental state. The truth of the matter is that she is in a loveless marriage, is estranged form her child and is in a career she hates.

She envies and later desires the success (and attention) of her rival, the "Real Estate King" whose image is portrayed by big red signs placed in the yards of the homes he is selling. She learns form him that "In order to be successful one must project the image of success at all times." Caroline's roses are the embodiment of that idea since they are the only thing in her life that she is succeeding at and are as perfect as she pretends the rest of her life to be.

Lester realizes that his wife's roses are representative of the lack of desire she has for him and their life together. So, it isn't a surprise that his own misplaced desires are represented by the very flowers that he loathes because they get all the affection and attention he does not. As Lester begins to find his way first by standing up to his wife and then by quitting his job he begins an unhealthy fantasy for his daughter's teenage friend, Angela.

These fantasies are very surrealist in nature and are some of the most beautiful and disturbing scenes in the movie. Each of these breaks in reality feature Angela intimately involved with the roses: they are coming out of her blouse or she is only covered in roses or she is immersed in bath that is filled with rose petals. Lester uses this fantasy as the only hope he has in his otherwise miserable life. His desire for Angela spurs him to make life changes that he believes will allow her to desire him and ultimately make him happy. Lester eventually learns that this fantasy isn't they way to his happiness, yet using Caroline's roses as a part of the lust he has for someone else turns the flower that's representative of his misery to one of power and hope for Lester.

Mendes continues to play with the theme of color in Caroline's life as a means of showing her unhappiness in the way that she dresses. She is the only one of the main characters that is brightly dressed. Most everyone else in the film can be found in muted colors: earth tones, grays and blacks but Caroline can always be found in color. Under her earth tone suit she has on a bright red slip. Her nightgown that she wears to bed is a light blue.

Later in the film in a very comic moment at a drive thru at a fast food restaurant she can be found in a red suit. Her desire to convince the world and herself that she is happy isn't just saying or telling people she is happy but dressing happy as well. This obsession for projecting perfection even through her dress makes for poignant moments in the movie as reality breaks through a happy veneer.

Caroline cries as she isn't able to sell the house though she has on her red slip and her roses on the table. She loses out on a moment of closeness with her husband because of her attachment to material goods as she looks perfect in her blue dress and high heels. Her attempt at finding happiness is abruptly lost as she's caught in a compromising situation in her sexy red suit.

Throughout the movie Caroline misses the fact that she isn't going to find happiness in all of her stuff or on how pretty the image she projects seems to be but only taking an honest look at herself and her life will bring her the happiness she finds so elusive. Her brightly colored garb makes her stand out in the movie but also makes her unhappiness more obvious.

Lester also tries to find happiness in colorful material objects. He turns in his boring Camry for a fire red 1970 Pontiac firebird a car he's desired since he was a kid. He purchases and plays with a red remote control car, yet unlike his wife his use of material goods is a stepping-stone in trying to figure out what will make him happy, not as a way to cover up his unhappiness. As the movie progresses Lester finds searching for happiness out side of himself is pointless, that it starts from within. In the end it isn't a brightly colored car or fantasies of a young girl that make him happy but black and white memories of his childhood, of his daughter of the early years with his wife that give him peace and happiness.

Mendes makes us question how we define happiness and success as he explores the inner-lives of a marriage that on the outside seem like they have it all, that they are living the American Dream.

Tamika Johnson is a freelance writer and owner of To read more reviews by Tamika or to have your book, music or film reviewed visit


The Review: The Humanities' Professional Deformations  The Chronicle of Higher Education

Humanities Division welcomes two new associate deans  University of California, Santa Cruz

Daily Blotter for December 8th 2022  UW–Madison Police Department

PHOTO | Deck the Wall  Texarkana Gazette

Class keeps history alive and accessible  Texas Woman's University

In memoriam: Harbindar Sanghara  University of Victoria

Mercyhurst Education Programs  Mercyhurst University

DO | On Studying the Humanities  Cornell University The Cornell Daily Sun

Oh, the Humanities!  Washington Free Beacon

home | site map
© 2006