Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When the movie starts out, life at the Burnham house looks ordinary—and that's the whole idea. Carolyn Burnham, the matriarch of the family, gives 110% to make everyone and everything appear perfect to the world around them—and when someone like Lester says anything remotely "off-script," she tells them not to be "weird."
Lester doesn't enjoy this kind of routine. In fact, he says that the way his life was going made him feel like he was already dead. So the ordinary world is hardly a thrill and a half.
Call to Adventure
Lester's life makes a 180-degree turn when he attends a performance at his daughter's school. Even though he's supposed to be there to watch his daughter, Jane, dance in the cheerleading performance, he gets totally distracted by Janie's friend Angela. He clearly finds her very appealing, and soon he's in full-blown fantasy mode, imagining that it's just the two of them there alone and she's undressing for him.
The whole experience seems to wake him up to how stagnant and terrible his life had become up to that point. Now that his desires are all stirred up, he decides he's going to shake things up…
Refusal of the Call
Lester realizes pretty quickly that he'll need to make some changes before he's ready to pursue someone like Angela. Because, yes, he remains fixated on her (despite the fact that she's his daughter's friend and underaged—gross, we know). After taking a quick peek in the mirror and assessing his physique, he starts pumping iron in the garage to get himself into shape.
Meeting the Mentor
Lester takes his new sassy attitude out on the road when he and Carolyn attend a party for her fellow real estate folks. Carolyn wants Lester to just be pleasant and normal, but he doesn't really take kindly to her micromanaging, and he eventually starts joking around—which, of course, mortifies her.
So, he escapes outside with one of the waiters, Ricky, who coincidentally is also his new neighbor. Despite the fact that Ricky is a teenager, Lester bonds with Ricky pretty quickly (though, given Lester's willingness to pursue a teen girl, is this really surprising?).
The two end up smoking pot on the terrace together, and Lester is super impressed when Ricky's boss catches them and, rather than trying to hide or apologize for slacking off to do drugs with a client, Ricky tells the boss off.
Lester admires Ricky's attitude and definitely wants to try to copy it.
Crossing the Threshold
Lester continues pushing forward with his new lease on life. He steps up his exercise regimen a bunch, starts eating healthily, buys an awesome new car, listens to rock 'n' roll and smokes pot in the garage, and quits his job (after nailing a hefty severance package) to work at a burger joint.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Unfortunately for Lester, Carolyn isn't really down with the new him. She's definitely not impressed by the new car or with the pot-smoking. And even though Lester tries to bring her along on his wild ride by sparking up some sexytimes, she's not having any of it. From that point on, it's clear that Lester's attempts at happiness and Carolyn's are always going to be at odds.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
While all this is going on, Ricky's dad, Frank, gets the mistaken impression that Ricky and Lester are having an affair (when really, Ricky is just selling Lester pot). When Frank goes over to Lester's house to confront him, we think he's going to go ballistic, since he's expressed homophobic tendencies before, but then Frank surprises everyone (and himself too, probably) by trying to kiss Lester.
Lester isn't into it and tries to let Frank down easy, but it's too late to make it better—now that he knows Frank's secret, Lester is in danger.
Lester doesn't really understand that yet, though, and so he heads back into his house. He finds Angela hanging out, distraught from a fight with Jane. Here, Lester finally has his chance to get busy with Angela—but just as they are on the brink of having sex, he comes to his senses and realizes that the woman he's been fantasizing about isn't a woman at all, but a young girl. (Notably, this realization only comes when she admits she's a virgin, which: gross, dude. It'd still be statutory rape if she weren't, you know?)
You'd think he might be devastated by this realization that his fantasy vixen is anything but, but he actually seems happy. Sure, he had to go through a seriously pervy and immature phase to get there, but he seems content and more grounded after his encounter with Angela.
Unfortunately, right on the heels of all that good stuff, Frank Fitts returns to the house and shoots Lester.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Strangely, though, the end of American Beauty doesn't run like a tragedy—instead, it's this big moment of peace and spirituality.
What does that mean? Well, Ricky had said earlier in the film that he believes you can see God in the eyes of the dead, and when he and Jane come upon the murdered Lester in the kitchen, he is clearly thinking about that as he crouches down to look at Lester's face and smiles before catching himself.
The deceased Lester also has a little smile on his face—left over, no doubt, from when he was looking at a picture of his family when Frank snuck up behind him with the gun.
Sure, it's disappointing that Lester's attempt to find meaning and passion in his life ended with a shattered skull, but overall it seems like a win—he's at peace and, in Ricky's view, is now somehow connected to and/or mirroring God back to the people who remain alive. We're not sure how that works, but the point is that the moment of Lester's death ends up actually being very spiritual and peaceful.
The Road Back
The movie ends basically the way it began, with an aerial shot of the Burnhams' neighborhood (which has actually been a recurring visual motif all through the film). As Lester speaks to us (via voiceover) from beyond the grave, the visuals take us full circle back to the beginning via this shot.
As the movie closes, we see what flashed through Lester's eyes as he was dying, and so we basically get a romp through his whole life, from boyhood to fatherhood. As he gets to see his life again in that last moment, we do, too.
Return With the Elixir
Lester admits that he could be super angry about the way things ended for him, but he's just overwhelmed by the beauty of life and grateful to have gotten to be a part of it. He also acknowledges that the people in the audience might find his whole story and attitude puzzling, but he says that they'll understand someday.
The hope seems to be that, having seen his story, the audience might be better able to fight their way out of the same problems Lester encountered.