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Film / American Beauty

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"...look closer."

American Beauty is a 1999 American dramedy film that won the Best Picture Oscar. It was the breakout film for writer Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) and director Sam Mendes. Chris Cooper also got his launch here, and finally, Kevin Spacey won his second Oscar here.

As to the plot, the opening narration tells it all:

"My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; 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."

The characters in the film:

  • Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a Henpecked Husband and personality-less advertising-magazine wage slave who feels trapped in a shallow and meaningless life. He is the film's Posthumous Narrator and main character, and the story concerns his efforts to find happiness. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser...and they're right."
  • Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), his wife, head of a real-estate firm and a Stepford Smiler of alarming caliber. "My company sells an image. It's part of my job to live that image."
  • Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), their daughter of 16 years old. "Janie's a pretty typical teenager: angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass...but I don't want to lie to her." She resents the way her father has begun to withdraw from her, and, in the very first scene of the movie, takes someone up on an offer to murder him.
  • Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), who is on the cheerleading team with Jane and quickly becomes the object of Lester's fantasies, causing him to start an intensive work-out regimen in an attempt to seduce her. She acts more worldly and experienced than Jane, and isn't afraid to use her body to her advantage: "If people I don't even know look at me and want to fuck me, it means...I really have a shot at being a model!"
  • Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the new next-door neighbor to the Burnhams and Jane's eventual love interest. He is a weird combination of Stalker with a Crush, Cloudcuckoolander and Shrouded in Myth (in regards to where he was before he moved here), and sees more clearly than anyone else in the cast. He is an experienced dealer of marijuana, becoming Lester's supplier, and carries a video camera everywhere to record interesting moments out of his life. "I didn't mean to scare you. I just think you're interesting."
  • Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), Carolyn's main business rival, the self-styled "King of Real Estate." He's powerful, success-minded, has enormously charismatic eyebrows, and appeals to her Stepford Smiler instincts: "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times." Eventually, the two of them start an affair. He also introduces Carolyn to the shooting range, where she picks up a Smith & Wesson once owned by a man named Chekhov...
  • Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Chris Cooper), a now-inactive Marine who fought in Vietnam. He's trying to raise Ricky in his own image ("You need need discipline"), which is meeting with limited success. He's also a flaming homophobe.
  • Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney), the colonel's silent, disjointed wife. She doesn't get many scenes, but Janney uses even her character's silence to communicate that there are some severe repression problems going on here.
  • Jim Berkley (Sam Robards) and Jim Olmeyer (Scott Bakula), a gay couple who are the Burnhams' next-door neighbors on the other side. Bakula has joked that these are the most normal people in the film — and the thing is, he's right. They help Lester develop his new work-out regimen.

Almost none of these characters are who they appear to be. The Burnhams evolve, spiraling in and out of happiness as the film progresses, while others are simply turned around on a single Wham Line.

Notable for being a dark, cynical, and dead-funny look at modern suburbia, possibly encouraging the later trend of arty/angsty, relatively-obscure dramas getting all the Best Picture nods. It's also notable for juggling a ton of characters, successfully, where most films top out at three or four.

This film provides examples of:

  • A-Cup Angst: Jane is looking up breast augmentation on the internet early in the movie. Subverted in that it turns out she is actually well-endowed, but her insecurity comes from the fact that one of her breasts is a little larger than the other.
  • Adopt the Dog: Lester holds back from taking the girl of his dreams, when he finds out that she's still a virgin.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Deconstructed and subverted. Lester Burnham, while going through a mid-life crisis, starts to lust after his daughter's teenage friend Angela and decides to seduce her. However, when they're actually together, she reveals that all her talk of having been with multiple boys was just bragging and she's really a virgin. Lester, who realizes how inappropriate he's been, refuses to take advantage of her.
  • All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Played straight with Lester's attraction to Angela, and subverted by Ricky's attitude towards her. Double subverted then since Jane is also a cheerleader (although not a stereotypically blonde one). She's also terrible at it.
  • AM/FM Characterization:
    • Lester is a Pink Floyd fan, as he's amazed that Ricky owns a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon. He also sings "American Woman" by The Guess Who while stoned in the car.
    • Carolyn sings Bobby Darin's version of "Don't Rain on My Parade" in the car. She's evidently a big Darin fan, as the soundtrack for the dinner table confrontation, which she is implied to have chosen, includes his recordings of "Call Me Irresponsible" and "Where Love Has Gone".
  • American Title: Of the ironic variety.
  • And Another Thing...: "...From now on, we're going to alternate our dinner music. Because frankly, and I don't think I'm alone here, I'm really tired of this Lawrence Welk shit."
  • Armored Closet Gay: Col. Fitts.
  • Artistic Licence – Biology: The movie has some pretty unrealistic gore effects that contradict the basics of human anatomy and phisiology. When Ricky gets hit by his father, it looks as if though his face merely squirted out some blood and then instantly healed itself, which is obviously impossible. Furthermore, when Lester gets killed, the way his blood gets splattered makes no sense – it's as if though the film crew just randomly threw some blood on the actor and on the nearby wall.
  • Author Appeal:
    • Most Alan Ball scripts feature gay characters, this one included.
    • There are a couple showtunes in the film, evidence of director Sam Mendes's theatre background; American Beauty was his first non-theatre directorial effort.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Played with. Col. Fitts not only gets away with murdering Lester, but also tearing apart both his and Lester's families. He doesn't entirely win, though, since his terrible parenting has caused him to push away and lose his only son, and the film's circumstances have forced him to acknowledge and admit his repressed homosexuality, which seems to hurt him more than anything else in the world.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Two instances of it in the circumstances leading to Lester's murder. In the opening scenes of the film, we hear Lester saying that he'll be dead in less than a year, as well as Jane seemingly seriously discussing murdering her father with help from her boyfriend Ricky, which leads us to assume that Lester would eventually be murdered by his daughter and her lover. We later find out that the conversation wasn't serious. Later on, we see Carolyn deciding "not to be a victim" by taking out her gun with the presumed intention of murdering Lester. Minutes later, we see a gun pointed to the back of Lester's head in the kitchen and he's shot to death. We assume that it's Carolyn, but later discover that the murder was actually committed by Col. Fitts.
  • Beneath the Mask: No main character is really who he or she appears to be at first, and the film ends when they have finally all found themselves for who they really are beneath their masks.
  • Big Bad: Col. Frank Fitts's abusive and homicidal tendencies drive most of the plot.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows:
    • Buddy Kane. DVD Commentary claims that cast and crew were occasionally mesmerized.
    • Ricky.
  • Bitch Alert: Carolyn. Her first lines to her daughter are "are you trying to look unattractive today?" and her idea of congratulating her on her routine is, "you didn't screw up once!"
  • Black Comedy: It's a movie about a man who lusts over a teenage girl, that we know dies at the end, his wife who's having an affair, his insecure daughter, and the boy next door who films her and dead animals because he finds them "interesting", who is also the man's drug dealer. It's hilarious in parts and downright tear-jerking in others.
  • Blunt "Yes":
    Carolyn: Jane, dear, are you trying to look unattractive today?
    Jane: Yes.
  • Boring Insult:
    Angela: Well, at least I'm not ugly.
    Ricky: ...Yes, you are. And you're boring. And you're totally ordinary. And you know it.
  • Burger Fool: Lester becomes one voluntarily and, unlike his co-workers, seems to enjoy it. It helps that, when he was laid off from his previous job, he blackmailed his boss into giving him an extremely generous severance package so anything he earns from the restaurant job is just extra cash to spend.
  • Camera Fiend: Angela thinks Ricky is this, but he films Jane because he thinks she's interesting and immediately stops when she asks him to. The scene where Jane strips off for him on camera points this out as, while she is topless, Ricky is pointing the camera at her eyes because of her expression.
  • Cardboard Box of Unemployment: After Lester succeeds in blackmailing his boss and quitting his boring desk job, he leaves the office carrying a box with his belongings hoisted on his shoulder and pumping his fist triumphantly.
  • Casting Couch: Angela boasts of sleeping with a photographer to enhance her modeling career. Turns out she was lying.
  • Changing Yourself For Love: Lester falls for his daughter's schoolmate and, after overhearing her say that she would find him attractive if he were just more buff, immediately starts working out regularly until he's in top shape to impress her.
  • Character Development: Lester's midlife crisis acts not only as a catalyst that changed Lester, but for most of the major characters in the film.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Lester's obsession over Angela is pretty squick-inducing, but when he actually has a chance to fulfill his fantasy, he stops once he realizes that for all her bravado, Angela is still a virgin.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Mrs. Fitts. She apologizes "for the way things look around here" when Jane comes over to visit...and then we pan up to show the dining room she's sitting in, which is impeccably spotless. When Frank kicks Ricky out and Ricky is about to leave to run away with Jane, he bids his mother goodbye. She responds with, "Wear a raincoat," which is...good advice.
  • Creator Cameo: The producer plays the bartender at the place where Ricky works.
  • Creepy Good: Ricky films people without their knowledge, as well as dead animals (and people), and speaks in a rather quiet, low voice, with a permanent intense stare, and is a drug dealer to boot. But he's actually a good guy (notably, he stops filming as soon as Jane asks him to and clearly means no harm), and is probably more well-adjusted than most of the cast.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lester especially, but sometimes Carolyn and Jane as well.
  • Dull Surprise: Jane and Ricky's reaction to finding Lester's dead body bleeding from a head shot in the kitchen.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Pretty much everyone except Ricky is horribly insecure, and even he isn't quite right in the head.
  • Elder Employee: Lester quits his advertising job and takes up working at the local burger joint (explaining he wants "the least possible amount of responsibility"). He's easily 20+ years older than the other employees, including the managers, and when his interviewer thinks Lester is overqualified and won't fit in there, he has to defend his prior fast food service experience despite it being decades earlier.
  • Ensemble Cast: Lester Burnham, Carolyn Burnham, Jane Burnham, Colonel Frank Fitts, Barbara Fitts, Ricky Fitts, Angela Hayes, Buddy Kane, Brad Dupree, Jim Olmeyer, and Jim Berkley. No, none of these are just filler characters—each of them plays a crucial role in the plot, or in someone else's characterization.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Angela Hayes, center of Lester's (and supposedly many other men's and boys') attention.
  • Fanservice: Mena Suvari naked (albeit with her breasts and crotch hidden) on a bed of rose petals. "Spectacular," indeed.
  • Faux Yay: Ricky sarcastically claims to be a prostitute who services other men when his father tells him that he would rather him be dead than homosexual.
    Ricky: And you should see me fuck. I'm the best piece of ass in three states!
  • Fille Fatale: Subverted, if not full on Deconstructed, with Angela. The original script also called for Jane to stand trial for Lester's murder, which would be a more straight example.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: While not completely unserious, the movie begins with a somewhat lighthearted / sarcastic nature, but the film slowly starts to develop a more serious tone throughout, beginning with Carolyn's breakdown in the house she fails to sell.
  • Flower Motifs: Roses and rose petals occur throughout the film, of the variety known as Rosa 'American Beauty'.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The opening narration reveals that Lester will die in the end. The intrigue comes from wondering how.
  • Gaussian Girl: Angela in Lester's fantasies about her.
  • Good Is Boring: Invoked with Jim and Jim. In reference to once seeing the most "bland and boring" heterosexual couple who wore the same clothes, writer Alan Ball said, "I can't wait for the time when a gay couple can be just as boring." The Jims were intentionally meant to be the happiest, and thus the least interesting, characters in the film.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: When Lester is killed.
  • Happily Married: They're not actually married, but Jim and Jim are the only couple (and characters, for that matter) in the film who are truly ordinary, happy and healthy.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Sexually Active Today?: Angela.
  • The Hedonist: Lester Burnham, as he tries to find happiness in his dull life.
  • He Knows Too Much: Col. Fitts kills Lester, to keep his homosexuality a secret...or out of shame for having tried to kiss him...or because he thinks he's a pedophile who rejects the advances of grown men.
  • The Hero Dies: Lester himself at the end.
  • Homage Shot: To Ordinary People during the dinner scene. Also, according to Word of God, the shot up Lester's legs as he's running in the last act is a Shout-Out to Marathon Man.
  • How We Got Here: The film opens with a scene from far into the story where Jane declares she wants to have her dad "put out of his misery" and the male behind the camera answers, "You want me to kill him for you?" before she responds in the affirmative. We are then shown the events that lead up to this scene.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms: When Carolyn catches Lester masturbating: "Oh, all right! So shoot me, I was whacking off! That's right, I was choking the bishop, chafing the carrot, you know, saying 'hi' to my monster!"
  • Hypocritical Humor: Janine says the slogan, "Smile! You're at Mister Smiley's!" without a trace of a smile on her face or enthusiasm in her voice. Ricky's mom's apology for the look of the (immaculate) house might also count, but it's not very funny since it's sadly indicative of her mental illness.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Lester, right after giving his wife a Head-Tiltingly Kinky kiss, to boot!
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Played with regarding Lester's attitude toward Carolyn's affair with Buddy. Lester ultimately seems rather indifferent to the affair itself, and isn't so much happy for his wife finding happiness with someone else as he is delighted at being able to experience a bit of schadenfreude at seeing his wife, who had adopted a superior-than-thou attitude towards him and pretty much everyone throughout the movie (at least in public) being brought down a peg or two in a rather publicly humiliating fashion through being exposed as an adulterer in front of him and everyone he works with.
    Lester: You...don't get to tell me what to do...ever...again.
  • Idealized Sex: Averted. The sex scene between Buddy and Carolyn is hilariously over-the-top. ("Fuck me, Your Majesty!") The sex scene between Lester and Angela comes closer to the trope, yet it ends up not with sex, but with Lester backing off and comforting Angela instead after learning that she's still a virgin.
  • If You Can Read This: There's a sign in Lester's cubicle at work that simply reads "Look Closer." This was just something the set designer felt like decorating the set with. Director Sam Mendes noticed this after seeing the footage in the editing room, and the phrase "Look Closer" would eventually become the movie's Tagline.
  • Imagine Spot: You'll never hear the music piece "On Broadway" the same way again.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Ricky says Jane is interesting, as opposed to Angela who is boring and "totally ordinary," though while onscreen, Angela, an aspiring model, is much more day-seizing and dynamic (or at least her stories are) than Jane, who mostly just complains about her parents or serves as an audience/conversation partner for Ricky. Anyone who likes thin, chatty, materialistic blondes over curvy, quiet, thoughtful brunettes will be rather flabbergasted by Ricky's claim. However, anyone attracted to more sensitive types don't need to be informed of Jane's attractiveness or Angela's lack of appeal. Jane clearly appreciates depth and artistry in a person with the way she finds Ricky so fascinating and asks him questions to understand him rather than blindly judging him outright based on hearsay, while Angela is a lot more shallow, focused on the material surface level of things, and judges people based on rumors she hears, making Jane more mature despite her perpetual upset over her unhealthy home life making her seem moody and immature to some people, and Angela more immature despite her constant boasting of how mature she is making her seem ahead of other girls.
  • In Medias Res: The opening scene is pulled from the middle of the film without context.
  • In the End, You Are on Your Own: Carolyn spouts this at one point.
  • Intimate Artistry: Ricky Fitts takes his video camera with him everywhere and views the entire world through the viewfinder. Though extremely creepy and borderline (or over the border) stalking, he is shown growing attached to and connecting with people and experiences much more deeply than any other character. He and Jane Burnham grow closer as he films her.
  • Karma Houdini: Col. Fitts after murdering Lester, but only because the film ends before we see the aftermath and inevitable investigation/trial.
  • Knight Templar: Col. Fitts, who subjects his own son to biannual urinalysis drug screening.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: When Jane shows Ricky her breasts, she lets her hair down first. She is also shown with her hair down when she and Ricky have their intimate scene.
  • Literally Loving Thy Neighbor: Jane and the new neighbor boy Ricky fall in love. Frank mistakenly thinks this is happening between Ricky and Lester, and he tries to literally love Lester himself, only to be rejected.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Ricky Fitts. Ironically, he is probably the most well-adjusted person in the movie.
    • Also an Ironic Meaningful Name, as Ricky does not fit. It's not a coincidence that the movie starts when his family moves in next door.
    • Ricky's backstory is that he had a fit (flying into a rage and attacking another kid) that landed him in a mental hospital, and his father has a fit when he thinks Ricky is servicing Lester.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Presented straight initially with Jane as the Madonna and Angela as the Whore. Subverted as the movie goes on, where Jane embraces her sexuality and it's revealed Angela is still a virgin.
  • Madden Into Misanthropy: Lester's Character Development arc goes through this and out the other side, finally finding himself in an epiphany just before his life is tragically cut short.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: The film opens by showing Lester's miserable daily life, which among other things includes him glumly masturbating in the shower thanks to his dissatisfying and dysfunctional Sexless Marriage with Carolyn. The fact that he does this out of sexual frustration is further highlighted by how he only begins to rebel against the confines of his joyless life after becoming sexually fixated on Angela. Later, when Carolyn catches him jacking off, the two get into an argument about their shared sexual frustration, with her refusing to engage with him when he says that he's ready to take care of that.
  • Meaningful Name:
  • Jane. Could be a play on Plain Jane, but as Ricky points out, she is beautiful, opposite of Angela in that she isn't a conventional beauty.
  • Ricky = Richard = Dick. Dick and Jane.
  • While it's averted with Frank Fitts and Lester Burnham, whose first names aren't that meaningful, Angela and Carolyn could be playing with the trope, too. Angela connotes an angel, someone ethereal, while Carolyn means "womanly." Barbara (Ricky's mother's name) means "stranger." Each of the main female characters' names relates to our first impression of her character, which is later deconstructed.
  • "Lester Burnham" is an anagram of "Humbert Learns".
  • In a similar vein — Angela Hayes as in Dolores Haze, better known as "Lolita."
  • Who used to live next door to the Burnhams, eventually hiring Buddy Kane to sell the house, resulting in the Fittses moving in? The Lomans.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Lester and Ricky by Col. Fitts. When the colonel tries to kiss Lester, he turns him down gently.
  • Moment Killer: Lester and Carolyn start having their first romantic and intimate moment in ages...until Carolyn becomes distracted when she notices that Lester is going to spill beer on the couch.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: Carolyn singing in the car, pulling up to her driveway, cuts off mid-last-word-of-the-song at the sight of Lester's new Cool Car.
  • My Life Flashed Before My Eyes: Happens to Lester when he dies.
    "I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all. It stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars...and yellow leaves, from the maple trees that lined our street...or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper...and the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird...and Janie...and Janie...and...Carolyn."
  • Naked People Are Funny: "Welcome to America's Weirdest Home Videos."
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Ricky's obsession with "beauty" extends to gazing with fascinated detachment at Lester's smiling corpse lying in a pool of blood.
  • Nipple and Dimed: It is an R-rated movie. Subverted, however, as both instances of topless female nudity emphasize their vulnerability over their sexuality.
  • Not That Kind of Partner: Inverted: When welcoming Colonel Fitts to the neighborhood, Jim Olmeyer introduces Jim Berkeley as "my partner". Colonel Fitts asks them to cut to the chase and proceed with the sales pitch, as he presumes they're business partners, and reacts with disgust when he realizes they mean romantic partner.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Col. Fitts spies on Ricky and Lester getting high, but their unfortunate placement and movements make it look like something sexual from Col Fitts's POV.
  • Object-Tracking Shot: The famous "bag blowing in the wind" scene.
  • Oh, and X Dies: Lester says in the opening that he'll be dead in less than a year.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Played for Drama. When Col. Fitts wanders over in the rain, Lester's dialogue confirms his (mistaken) perception that Lester is, like Fitts himself, a closeted gay man. This leads to the shooting at the end.
  • Orbital Kiss: Lester and Angela kissing in the kitchen fantasy.
  • Pom-Pom Girl: Angela is of a good nature and can get people into cheers, and she's self-obsessed when not on the job. Jane is affable even when she's not acting as a cheerleader, but even though she's enthusiastic she's not amazing at it. Carolyn mentions how dedicated she is to her routines as well.
  • Posthumous Character: Lester is shot at the end of the film, providing a Posthumous Narration from the film's post-intro opening.
  • Power Hair: One of Carolyn Burnham's numerous ways of "projecting an image of success at all times." Notably, in flashbacks to her younger days - where Lester describes her as happy - her hair is longer.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Lester's trademark.
    • When he's working out after Carolyn's lecture: "That'!"
    • During the violent dinner: "Don't Interrupt Me...honey."''
    • After his (truncated) romantic moment with his wife: "IT'S! JUST! A! COUCH!"
    • When he finds out she is cheating on him: "No, no. You...don't get to tell me what to do...ever...again."
  • Redemption Equals Death: Lester completes his character arc and finally finds peace and happiness...moments before he's murdered.
  • Red Herring: Throughout the movie we are led to believe that either Ricky or Carolyn kills Lester.
  • Repeat Cut: Happens whenever Lester fantasizes about Angela:
    • The moment Angela opens her top in Lester's fantasy sequence at the basketball game.
    • The moment when Angela feels up Lester in the kitchen.
    • The moment when Lester reaches his hand into the bathtub.
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: Subverted in the opening: it's actually just a Red Herring.
  • Scenery Censor: Some of Lester fantasies about Angela have her nude or stripping, but her naughty bits are always covered by conveniently placed rose petals.
  • Sexless Marriage: Lester and Carolyn. As Lester says it, "This hasn't been a marriage for years, but you were happy as long as I kept my mouth shut. Well, guess what, I've changed! And the new me whacks off when he feels horny, because you're obviously not gonna help me out in that department!"
    • Presumably also Col. and Mrs. Fitts, due to Col. Fitts being a closet homosexual.
  • Sexy Packaging: If you know nothing about American Beauty, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a porn flick, given the title, the "Look closer" Tagline and the prominent picture of a woman's midriff and the red rose. Then again, this was probably the designer's look closer and not judge anything by its cover, since the film's most prominent theme is that things are rarely ever as they seem on the surface.
  • Shaking Her Hair Loose: When Jane strips for Ricky, she unties her hair before taking off her bra.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Lester Burnham = Humbert Learns.
    • Note also that Angela's surname (Hayes) is homophonous with Lolita's surname (Haze).
    • Carolyn desperately embracing Lester's shirts is one to The Great Gatsby.
    • At the beginning of the film Carolyn mentions how the Lomans moved away when she had their tree cut down.
  • Skewed Priorities: Lester bites Carolyn's head off for being more concerned about beer getting spilled on the couch than having her first intimate moment with him in years.
  • Soul-Crushing Desk Job: Lester Burnham works a soul-sucking desk job that, along with his troubled marriage, he believes is killing him. As part of his midlife crisis, he blackmails his boss, quits his job, and goes back to flipping burgers, which he finds far more satisfying.
  • Spiritual Successor: The film provided much of the inspiration for Desperate Housewives, with its Posthumous Narration and exploration of the darker side of suburbia.
    • And it is itself arguably a Spiritual Successor of such famous "middle-aged adultery" comedies as The Seven Year Itch and 10 (1979), albeit much darker than them, as well as melodramas from The '50s such as Bigger Than Life (also a film about an American patriarch who feels jaded with Conspicuous Consumption and a mid-life crisis).
    • In many ways, American Beauty is a spiritual successor to Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Both stories explore the shallowness and boredom of middle-class American life through the experience of a white-collar worker who seems to be living well, yet casts off his previous existence for something more rebellious but proves not to be as meaningful as he thought, and comes back enlightened and ready to make a more serious change.
    • Little Children could be considered an unofficial Spiritual Successor, as it shares the same theme of the dark root of suburbia, albeit with less Black Comedy, and also is scored by Thomas Newman.
  • Spit Take: Lester spits his beer into the kitchen sink when he hears that Angela is going to stay for the night.
  • Stalking Is Love: Played straight with Ricky, although he means no harm and initially simply finds her interesting (and he films everything he finds interesting, not just her), and really does come to love Jane as the film progresses.
  • Stepford Smiler: On the surface, Carolyn is a successful Real Estate Agent with perfect hair, clothes, makeup, and cheery demeanor. In reality, she strips her husband and daughter of their self-esteem while being immensely unhappy with herself for failing to reach her own expectations.
  • Stepford Suburbia
  • Straight Gay: The two Jims. Col. Fitts, a raging homophobe who is actually deeply closeted, doesn't even realize they're gay at first.
  • Stylistic Suck: In a more literal sense than usual for this trope, Carolyn's hairstyle at the corporate party looks fine from the front (as she would see it in a mirror), but when we see her from the side or from behind, it looks flat and clumsy. This was done deliberately to reflect how she hides what a mess she is inside under a facade of success and elegance.
  • Suburban Gothic: Lester's marriage is unhappy, his daughter resents him, and he's trapped in a dead-end job that he hates.
  • Table Space: The Burnhams have a fairly large dinner table in their living room. The increased space conveys the estrangement between the family members when they dine together.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: Lester says as much with his sarcastic description of his own job.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Lester throwing a plate of food against a wall.
  • There Are No Therapists: Or marriage counselors, apparently.
  • This Loser Is You: Lester at first, a shabby, desperate, unhappy man with a midlife crisis.
  • Title Drop: A non-verbal example with the "American Beauty" rose being prominently featured (see Flower Motifs above).
  • Took a Level in Badass: Lester, after quitting his job, begins working out and standing up to his wife.
  • True Love Is Boring: Intentionally done with Jim and Jim, a gay couple, and the film's only apparently happy and "normal" characters. In reference to once seeing the most "bland and boring" heterosexual couple who wore the same clothes, writer Alan Ball said, "I can't wait for the time when a gay couple can be just as boring."
  • Unexpected Virgin: Angela.
  • Wham Line:
    • "This is my first time."
    • In-Universe is Lester yelling, "Sit down!" when Jane tries to leave the dinner table. She and Carolyn are shocked that Lester has actually raised his voice.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?:
    • Subverted. Carolyn hits Jane but actually stops crying and apologizing as she does so, as Jane was having none of her mother's emotional blackmail.
    • Played straight with Ricky and Col. Fitts. Fitts brutally beats Ricky and then goes on a tirade of all the things Ricky does wrong to justify it.
  • World of Symbolism: In the first shot of Lester at work, he's reflected on a computer monitor, and the onscreen text looks like jail bars. That's just ONE example. The film is ripe for media classes to dissect.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Both Jane and Ricky get hit by their parents in the same scene with the other watching. Both Carolyn and Frank hit their children in fits of rage.
  • You Are What You Hate:
    • Col. Fitts is violently homophobic. We ultimately learn that this stems from his shame over being homosexual himself.
    • Angela looks down on people she considers boring and ordinary to mask her insecurity over her own shallow, superficial personality.