What Does American Beauty Say About the American Dream?

The American Dream is traditionally defined as the ideal of achieving success, prosperity, and upward social mobility through hard work, determination, and perseverance. However, the 1999 film American Beauty challenges this ideal by questioning the very essence of what it means to achieve the American Dream.

The Characters’ Pursuit of the American Dream

The film follows the lives of several characters, each of whom is pursuing their own version of the American Dream. Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man, is unhappy with his career, marriage, and suburban lifestyle. He quits his job and begins working at a fast-food restaurant, gets physically fit, and develops an infatuation with his teenage daughter’s best friend in an attempt to recapture the youth and vitality he feels he has lost.

Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is a successful real estate agent who is obsessed with keeping up appearances and maintaining a perfect household. She is consumed by the need for success and status, and everything in her life revolves around achieving those goals.

Their daughter, Jane, is a typical teenager, struggling to find her way in the world and figure out what she wants out of life. She’s deeply unhappy with her family, her life, and herself.

The Tragic Outcome

As the film progresses, we see the consequences of the characters’ individual pursuits of the American Dream. Lester’s actions lead to his own death, as well as that of his daughter’s friend. Carolyn’s obsession with success and status causes her to lose everything she valued, including her family and her career. Jane’s despair drives her to seek comfort in a fellow outcast.

The Film’s Message

American Beauty ultimately suggests that the American Dream is an illusion, a false promise that cannot be fulfilled. The characters’ pursuit of their own versions of the Dream is ultimately futile, leading only to sadness, tragedy, and even death. The film is a critique of American society, which values individual success and ambition over compassion, empathy, and genuine connections with others.


American Beauty is a harrowing but poignant film that challenges our perceptions of the American Dream. By depicting the tragic consequences of the characters’ pursuit of success and happiness, it forces us to question whether the Dream is worth pursuing at all. The film suggests that true happiness and fulfillment can only be found in genuine connections with others, and that the pursuit of individual success and ambition can only lead to alienation and isolation.

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