• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #286: Lester Burnham


Benning not being a teenage boy, Spacey is uninterested.

The time had to come eventually, I suppose. Next May I'll turn 42, the age at which Lester Burnham experiences his crisis/breakdown/breakthrough in the stunning, dense film American Beauty. Lester is a man trapped, emasculated and marginalized by his marriage, his job, the numbing comfort of his banal existence. He and his arch, social-climber wife Carolyn have accumulated the trappings of an upper-middle-class life, but the price has been Lester's soul. He remarks himself that it is as though he has been sedated or asleep or comatose for decades, abandoning through decision or inaction those things that once mattered to him. His ache comes not because he doesn't have the passions of his youth, but because he does not even remember what they were.


The film follows Lester's attempted rejection of the manacles of mid-life: the weary ennui of drudgerous employment, the worship of material goods, the slow erosion of sexual intimacy in calcifying marriage, the painful distance from children on the cusp of adulthood. Mainly, Lester wants to be happy. He doesn't know how anymore, so he starts by abandoning the things that make him unhappy - his job, the dearth of candor with his wife. He drinks, he experiments with marijuana, he begins lifting weights. It's the existential crisis of the suburban male at forty, trying one last time to recapture the purity of life from the dimly recalled teenage days when it all mattered somehow. He's attracted to his daughter's waif-sexy cheerleader friend, in an overtly creepy yet painfully evocative portrayal of the last gasp of male virility. Beaten down by the world, robbed of masculinity by his alpha-wife, Lester wants to feel like a stud again.


When his fantasy wanders too close to reality and he has the opportunity to act on his theoretical lust, Lester can't pull the trigger. In that moment he reverts to his actual age, and realizes that you can't go home to sixteen again, you can't rewind the tape and find the old passions. Some things are plastic bags in the wind, long since blown by and never to be recalled. He looks at a family photo and smiles, coming to grips with the knowledge that as infuirating as it is, this is the life he has, and there is beauty in it. His death in that moment, slain by the homophobic father next door, is a gift: he dies at the moment he is most truly himself, free of expectation or regret and liberated from the decades of decline to come.


There's more of course - themes of freedom and love and materialism. It's a masterful film, and the briliant Kevin Spacey's Lester is at the heart of it, a character many of my vintage will recognize a bit too readily, and see in ourselves with no small discomfort. Here's hoping we all find the beauty in our own lives - minus the bullet to the head, if possible.

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