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American Beauty starts out on an odd foot: it begins with a home movie clip of a girl complaining about her pervy father and then asking her boyfriend (the guy filming the video) if he'd kill Pops for her.
We then transition into the actual plot, which focuses on the last year in the life of a man named Lester Burnham. In a voiceover, Lester tells us that he'll be dead within the year. And when we learn that he's the father of the girl from the home movie, we ask ourselves again: what kind of movie is this? Some kind of horror movie? We thought we were watching American Beauty, not American Patricide.
Turns out, it's not really a sinister story that's overly focused on murder (although, sure, Lester does get smoked eventually) or murder plots. Really, it's all about how Lester "wakes up" emotionally and physically from a life that had become pretty stagnant.
From the outside, he and his wife have pretty much been living the American dream. They have a beautiful house, a pretty daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), and decent jobs. And Carolyn (Annette Bening), Lester's wife, is all about playing up that image of her perfect family/life to others.
We quickly learn that Lester feels trapped and feeble in that life, though. He hates his job, and he and Carolyn are indifferent to each other on their best days (and openly hostile on their worst). Oh, and he's got a little pent up sexual energy as well.
This can't end well.
Things shift for Lester when he starts ogling his daughter's friend Angela (Mena Suvari) at a high school cheer performance. Naturally, Jane finds Lester's obvious interest in her friend completely disgusting and wrong (which it is), but it does help Lester wake up a bit, in terms of his emotions. He suddenly realizes that he doesn't have to be miserable, passive, and sexless, and he starts working out, standing up to his boss, and pursuing a—er—active fantasy life.
While all this is going on, Lester's daughter, Jane, is having her own drama. First, as we already know, her dad is perving on her friend, which understandably freaks her out. Also, she starts up a romance with the guy next door, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who starts out seeming scary and odd, but turns out to be nice...and odd.
Ricky's family life is even more complicated than Jane's. His mother is practically catatonic (we don't know why) and his father, Frank (Chris Cooper), is a hardline retired colonel who watches Ricky's every move. It seems that Ricky was previously caught doing drugs and then eventually ended up in a mental hospital, so his dad keeps a close eye on his activities.
Puzzled and more than a little annoyed at her husband's new attitude during his pseudo-adolescent funfest, Carolyn decides to seize the day a little herself. She sparks up an affair with a fellow realtor and decides she's going to learn how to shoot a gun. The fact that we know Lester will die makes us more than a little queasy about Carolyn's newfound fondness for guns.
Lester's newfound confidence eventually leads to him quitting his job (after blackmailing the company into a year of hefty severance), and he starts working at a fast food joint. Tensions increase among Lester, Carolyn, and Jane as they each pursue their own agendas and problems.
On the night Lester ends up dying, he makes a move on Angela—but he steps back at the last minute after she admits (despite all her bluster about having tons of lovers) that she's a virgin. This moment seems to give Lester his second big wakeup call of the film—namely, that he doesn't have to commit statutory rape to feel alive, and that the "Angela" he'd been fantasizing about was, well, simply a fantasy.
Unfortunately, right before his encounter with Angela, Lester had received a visit from Frank Fitts, who believed that Lester was paying his son Ricky for sexual favors (you'll have to read the scene-by-scene summary for the who-what-where-why of that one). We expected him to be furious with Lester, but instead, he tries to kiss him. It seems that a lot of Frank's conservative mouthing-off was just a cover for his own closeted feelings, which come out in this very surprising and unfortunate way—unfortunate, of course, because Lester isn't. Frank skulks back to his house, totally humiliated.
After their near close encounter of the sexual kind, Angela and Lester chat, and Lester seems really at peace and cheerful. He stares at a picture of his family as we see a gun sneak into the frame behind his head.
Through flashbacks to where everyone else was at that moment, we learn that it was Frank Fitts who pulled the trigger—probably because he couldn't deal with the fallout from trying to make out with Lester (and, well, because he was unhinged).
Despite the fact that the protagonist dies, it's not a particularly sad ending. In the voiceover that closes the film, Lester tells us how much beauty he sees in the world, and he thinks primarily about all the happy moments and memories he had with his family. We see what flashed before his eyes before he died, and it's not what you might think. Instead of big moments such as weddings and births, he (and we) sees small things: his grandmother's hands, Jane's Halloween costume as a kid, and Carolyn riding a carnival ride.
And that's American beauty.