::written circa. Summer 2014.
If there were any lesson that can be taken, from watching the 1999 film “American Beauty,” it would be that attention to detail in life is key. Before taking a life-span developmental psychology course, one could easily disregard any indication of clinical depression, mid-life crises, self-concept, identity and so forth; or simply not have the knowledge of correct terms to express. Today, those circumstances have certainly changed. By observing the main character, Lester Burnham, many connections can be made to various topics taken from a life-span developmental perspective (Berger, 2014, pg. 7). However, this does not limit the many characters and examples the movie has to offer.
As a middle-aged adult, Lester finds himself clinically depressed, in the middle of a job that he hates and a miserable life he pretends to like (Berger, 2014, pg. 377). A mid-life crisis is considered to be a time in adulthood, greatly characterized by “self-reevaluation” (Berger, 2014, pg. 465). For the former half of the movie, obviously stressed, Lester relates to someone stuck at Erikson’s 5th stage of Identity vs Role Confusion (Berger, 2014, pg. 356). The main character steadily juggles various ideas of his fictitious roles for his materialistic, self-centered wife Carolyn; and not forgetting to mention his self-identity as a valuable asset to a magazine company. As Berger and Erikson state, though this stage is well known to correlate with the adolescent age, it can be “life-long.” Arguably, in addition, Erikson’s 8th psychosocial stage of Integrity vs Despair can be used to characterize Lester (Berger, 2014, pg. 25). As he continues to drown out the constant antagonism of his job downsizing and his attempts to connect with his family, the character finds himself analyzing his own self-worth and trying “to find meaning in life.”
Continuing on, unfortunately, the intimate relationship with his wife is certainly not so promising. Based on Erikson’s 6th stage of Intimacy vs Isolation, the Burnhams could be characterized with the latter (Berger, 2014, pg. 469). With opposing views on many things (needless to say), their lack of connectivity pushes them to become distant towards one another. Inevitably, this creates an entropic domino effect of disdain, hate and adulterous acts. As a result, this would be an appropriate time to mention the role of consequential strangers, in which both Buddy Kane and Angela Hayes contribute to fulfill the element of intimacy (Berger, 2014, pg. 470).
As the movie surpasses it’s climax, Lester uses the strategy of emotion-focused coping to handle this mid-life crisis, where he would ideally change his own feelings about certain stressors in his life (Berger, 2014, pg. 443). For the latter half of the movie, Lester reawakens and adopts this “I don’t care, I’ll do whatever I want, don’t bother me” attitude. He would often fixate back to past memories and/or happier times; he quotes “When I worked at a burger joint, I loved it. I got high and got laid all the time,” which enticed him to apply for a job at a local fast food restaurant. As a result, with his rebellious attitude in tact, Lester begins to smoke pot again, exercise again, quit his magazine job and buy the Pontiac Firebird he always wanted. All of which contribute to his mission to regain and/or add some self-identity into his life.
Towards the end of the movie, before Lester was murdered, it seemed as if he personally fulfilled and reached Erikson’s 7th stage of Generativity vs Stagnation (Berger, 2014, pg. 481). As Berger discusses, generativity is described as a point in which adults attempt to seek “caring productivity,” for the greater good, other than themselves. Of course, there may be mixed and opposing views on interpretations of the movie. For the most part, Lester portrayed to be a morally sound person. He attempted to connect and be there for his daughter; he tried to be materialistically there for his wife. At the end of the movie, Lester suddenly restrains himself from sexually devouring Angela, because he took a caring consideration that she is still a virgin. Needless to say, he would always look at old pictures of his family, inferring some type of concern for others. With that said, at the very end Lester asks Angela, “Is Jane happy?” This showed that he certainly cared about his own daughter and her own happiness.
If there were anything in life that can be learned from this movie, it would be for everyone to open his or her eyes to these developmental cues, as elaborated in the 1999 movie trailer. By taking on this life-span perspective, ideally one would potentially be able to avert many unfortunate forthcomings. However, realistically, life isn’t as simple as it seems to be. The difficulty remains that individuals cannot read each other’s mind. Each human being continues to grow with the inevitable choice and freedom of will to decide his or her own future and individuality. With that said, no one is perfect.
Let me know what you think! Leave a comment below!
Berger, K. S. (2014). Invitation to The Life Span. 2nd Ed. New York, NY: Worth Publishers