Happiness exists in American Beauty as a myth, as a goal, and as a disguise. All of the characters are engaged in the pursuit of happiness, although they have very different ideas about what happiness is and how to find it. This is one of the qualities that truly make American Beauty a film about the modern American experience: if being American means having the intrinsic right to the pursuit of happiness, why is the "typical" American so deeply unhappy? At the beginning of the film, Lester Burnham realizes that despite the dire nature of his current state, it is still possible for him to become happy once again. Slowly - and then with growing intensity - he begins to pursue happiness by paying close attention to his true desires, and ignoring the screeching dictates of society (as embodied by his wife, Carolyn). At the close of the film, Lester finally realizes that he has found true happiness...and in the most unlikely way. What makes this film so unique is that Lester pursues happiness in a manner that runs directly counter to the ideals of "respectable" society: he does drugs, takes a meaningless job, and pursues a sexual affair with a fifteen-year-old girl. Lester has become so blinded by his willingness to walk the straight and narrow that he must return to a fundamental - and arguably juvenile - state in order to recapture the happiness that he once enjoyed. Meanwhile, Carolyn Burnham represents the commonly-held belief that happiness is about perception: she is happy if she seems pulled together, confident, and successful - in other words, she is happy if others think that she is happy. She believes that by pursuing success she is pursuing happiness, but in reality she is merely attempting to dampen her own misery over the wreckage of her marriage and the narrowness of her life. Her daughter Jane, in contrast, is completely immersed in her misery. She displays it for all to see, from the clothes she wears to the company she keeps. Jane is so used to living in a state of perpetual unhappiness that when she meets Ricky she continues to obsess about her terrible home life despite the fact that Ricky's situation is clearly far worse.Ultimately, American Beauty endorses the pursuit of happiness as the only thing worth living for. At the end of the film, Lester's murder seems almost inconsequential; how can Lester's end be viewed as a tragedy when he was lucky enough to know true happiness in the months before he died, and when so many others never know it at all?
Many of the characters' problems stem from their failure to develop or maintain a coherent identity. Lester finds happiness by separating his sense of self-worth from his job and his home life. He learns that even though his boss and wife treat him as though he's worthless, that doesn't mean that he is. Angela believes that her identity is founded entirely on her sexuality. She fears being "ordinary" because she has confused ordinariness with physical plainness, and has confused physical plainness with having no identity. Carolyn Burnham is one of the film's most tragic characters because she has literally replaced her identity as a person with a collection of material things. Carolyn Burnham has a perfect suit, an expensive couch, and a new car, but she has lost the vivacious personality that Lester Burnham fell in love with. When he attempts to remind her of how she once was, she viciously defends her current state, thus protecting her belief that her priorities are in order and that she is successful because she possesses the "important" things in life. Ricky is the one character who does not fall victim to this problem of identity: his awe-inspiring strength comes from his ability to retain a clear sense of self despite constant abuse from his father. Even when he discovers that his father's love is truly conditional, Ricky is able to fearlessly pursue Jane's love and acceptance.The power of identity is underscored by Lester Burnham's death. Colonel Fitts kills Lester because he has revealed his true self to him, and cannot bear the idea that some part of himself - a part that he has always tried to keep hidden - has been exposed. In killing Lester, the Colonel preserves an identity that he can live with, albeit a false one.
From its title to its allusions to several iconic American texts, American Beauty explores different aspects of American culture and American identity. The title refers to three different symbols of American culture: American Beauty roses (a popular variety), Angela as a representative of youthful, innocent, "American" loveliness, and the American aesthetic of beauty, as represented by Ricky's films. Lester Burnham has distinct similarities to Willy Loman, the everyman protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Lester, cognizant of his situation, reinvents his life in order to save himself from a similar end. Carolyn Burnham represents American consumerism and the unfortunate belief that things can replace relationships. Lester's job at a fast-food restaurant and Jane's participation on the cheerleading team (both "typical" American roles) inject a humorous note into Mendes' discussion of American culture. All the same, American Beauty forces the viewer to consider whether there is anything worth saving at the root of this culture. When American Beauty was released abroad, many critics were surprised that Americans responded so positively to a film that seemed so critical of traditional American values. Americans, it seems, were ready to question these values much as Lester does in the film, and move towards a more satisfying, emotionally fulfilling existence.