American Beauty: The Beauty of Existentialism

June 2, 2010 at 5:36 am (Existentialism and the meaning of life) (, , , )

American Beauty (1999) is an existentialist film which involves the main character engaging in an existential crisis. He questions the meaning of his life and as a result engages his freedom to take responsibility for his life the creation of meaning within it.

American Beauty (1999) follows the mid-life, existential crisis of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle aged, suburban husband and father. After developing an attraction to his daughter’s best friend, the depressed protagonist begins to take responsibility for his life, making decisions and taking actions which ultimately result in his death. The film commences with Lester’s narration, depicting his sense of the meaningless of his existence and the beginning of his acquisition of responsibility.

“Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right, I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.”

These opening lines and earlier scenes of the film correlate with the myth of Sisyphus, an illustration of absurdity used by existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Sisyphus was sentenced for eternity by the gods to roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down. The extremity of this punishment is due to its meaninglessness, for despite his efforts, the task has no purpose (Rowlands, 2005). A parallel can be drawn to the state of Lester’s life prior to his acquisition of responsibility. He continues his monotonous routine, including his desk job of fourteen years and dinner with the same soundtrack, until his attraction to teenager, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), initiates his existential crisis.

An existential crisis involves questioning the meaning of life and considering the purpose of one’s existence. Existentialist philosophers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre argue that one rather happily embraces the meaninglessness of life, enjoying the associated freedom, or remain in a depressed state (Litch, 2002). In American Beauty, Lester moves through his depression, embracing his recognition of the absurdity of his life and his freedom to take responsibility, set goals and make choices. Lester’s actions correlate with arguments presented by Satre, who suggests that it is one’s freedom and therefore responsibility to make the meaning of their lives and take action if life is not how it is wished to be (Pamerleau, 2009). American Beauty is focused around such actions of the character, including quitting his job, buying a sports car, working out and standing up to his realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening). Carolyn, unlike her husband, does not recognise the futility of her life and continues to work to painful extremes with an ambition to achieve her notion of success, measured by income, sales records and material goods.

American Beauty presents existentialism in a positive light, demonstrating the freedom and happiness which can endure from the recognition of one’s role in the construction of meaning. Lester’s final words “I’m great” and the slight smile on his face upon his death clarify his increased happiness as a result of his existentialist thinking. 


Ball, A. (Writer), Mendes, S. (Director), Cohen, B. &  Jinks, D. (Producers). (1999). American Beauty [DVD]. n.p: Dreamworks Pictures.

Litch, M. M. (2002). Philosophy through film. New York: Routledge.

Pamerleau, W. (2009). Existentialist cinema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved May 15, 2010, from Electronic Book Library Database.

Rowlands, M. (2005). The philosopher at the end of the universe: Philosophy explained through science fiction films. London: Elbury Press.


  1. Richard Larratt said,

    best movie of the last ten years and still counting

  2. American Beauty (1999) is an existentialist film | The Castlehom Institute said,

    […] January 31, 2011 at 1:26 am […]

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