The movie opens with a grainy shot of Jane Burnham reclining on a bed, complaining about her father. An unseen boy (presumably the camera operator) asks her if she wants him to kill her father, to which she replies, "yeah. Would you?" The opening credits roll, and the shot switches to an aerial view of a neighborhood. As we fly over suburban America, Lester Burnham begins to speak, introducing himself to the audience and informing them, "in less than a year, I'll be dead." The shot then transitions into Lester Burnham's bedroom, where he is sleeping alone. An irritating alarm rings, and Lester, still in voice-over, ruminates on his sense that "in a way, I'm dead already." The voice-over continues as the camera follows Lester Burnham into the shower, where he masturbates - the "high point" of his day.
The next shot is a close-up of a beautiful red rose. The camera pans out to show Carolyn Burnham snipping roses from her garden with pruning shears that match her gardening clogs. Lester Burnham continues to narrate as the camera switches views. He describes the gay couple who live next door: Jim Olmeyer and Jim Berkley. Lester is watching from the window as his wife talks to one of the Jims about her roses. The view then switches to Jane, who is researching breast augmentation surgery on the Internet. Jane looks at herself in the mirror before leaving to join her mother, who is outside honking the car horn. As Jane walks out, her mother sarcastically congratulates her on having succeeded at making herself look terrible. As Carolyn nags Lester for making her late, he accidentally drops his briefcase, spilling the contents everywhere. In the car, Lester sleeps in the back seat while his wife drives and Jane sits in the passenger seat. The voice-over continues as Lester muses about how his life used to be different, how it used to be better. Lester then comments, "it's never too late to get it back."
The voice-over ends as the shot switches to a computer screen upon which Lester's face is reflected. He is at work, one man in a cubicle in a room full of men in cubicles. He is on the phone attempting to get some information from someone on the other end, and he learns that the person he needs to speak to is, yet again, not there. As the phone call ends, Brad Dupree approaches Lester's cubicle and asks for a minute of his time. The scene switches to Brad's office, where Brad is telling Lester about a new performance review. Lester cuts him off and begins to rant about the fact that the company paid for the hotel room where a higher-up got a hooker who then stayed for a week, running up a bill of fifty thousand dollars. Brad insists that this is only gossip, and he insincerely assures Lester that no one's being fired: they're just being asked to put in writing how they contribute to the company.
On the drive home Lester complains to Carolyn that he thinks the performance review is wrong. Carolyn is completely unsympathetic and tells him to stop over-dramatizing and give the efficiency expert what he wants. Carolyn points out that they have new neighbors and comments that the house would have sold faster if their old neighbors had hired her as their real estate agent. Lester reminds her that she cut down their sycamore tree, and she gets upset, insisting that as a substantial amount of the roots were on their property, it was not "their" sycamore tree. They go inside the house.
The camera focuses on several happy family pictures before settling on the Burnhams, who are sitting around the dining room table. Lester, Carolyn and Jane eat in a formal dining room, with candles lit and music playing. Jane asks if they always have to listen to this music, and Carolyn comments brightly that when Jane cooks dinner she can pick the music. Lester asks Jane how school was, but when he tries to get her to elaborate she becomes sarcastic and sullen. He starts to talk about Brad the Efficiency Expert, but quickly realizes that no one is listening to him. He comments that Jane doesn't care about how his day was, to which Jane responds that as he has barely spoken to her for months, he can't expect her to care. She leaves the table. Carolyn gives Lester a look, and Lester snaps at her. Carolyn becomes furious, and Lester gets up and goes into the kitchen. He tries to talk to Jane, apologizing for seeming distant and asking her what happened to their relationship: they used to have such a good one. The camera pans out and the shot becomes fuzzy: suddenly, it is apparent that there is someone standing outside, filming Lester and Jane through a window. The shot reverses to reveal a teenaged boy holding a video camera. He watches as Jane leaves the kitchen, and then films Lester as he begins washing dishes, looking frustrated. Finally the boy lowers the camera and walks away. Lester looks up, but no one is there anymore. The final shot of the scene is of a happy family picture sitting on a side table: clearly, things didn't used to be this bad in the Burnham household.
The next scene opens with Carolyn Burnham putting an "Open House" sign on the front lawn of a house she is trying to sell. She hums as she unloads her supplies from the car, but her good mood vanishes when she spots another agent's sign across the street - Buddy Kane, the "King of Real Estate". Inside the house, Carolyn proclaims, "I will sell this house today." She repeats this mantra as she strips down to her slip and proceeds to clean the entire house from top to bottom. Once she is finished, she opens the doors wide to reveal her first visitors. Carolyn walks several visitors through the (decidedly ordinary) house, brightly enumerating its positive attributes, but none look particularly interested. The last visitors, two women, complain that the pool is not "lagoon-like", as it was described in the ad. Carolyn desperately tries to put a positive spin on everything, but at the end of the day the house remains unsold. After the last visitor leaves she shuts the blinds of a sliding glass door, leans against them, and begins to cry. She sobs uncontrollably for several moments, but then suddenly screams at herself to "shut up!" and slaps her own face again and again. After a few gasping breaths, she pulls herself together and walks towards the front door.
The next scene begins with Jane sitting in a high school gymnasium with her cheerleading team. The girl sitting next to her asks her who she's looking for, and Jane tells the girl that her parents said they were coming, wondering aloud why her parents can't just settle for their own lives. In the car on the way to the game, Lester asks Carolyn how she knows Jane even wants them to come. Carolyn insists that it's important for them to be there, and Lester complains that he's missing some good television. Lester then comments that Jane hates them both. At the basketball game, Jane watches as her parents arrive, disturbing an entire row of seats as they take their places. The cheerleaders get up to perform at halftime, and Lester asks Carolyn if they can leave right after this. Carolyn gives him a look. The cheerleaders begin to execute a choreographed dance routine, and Carolyn awkwardly tries to clap along to the music. Suddenly, as the girls form a "V", Lester notices the girl Jane was talking to earlier, Angela Hayes, and his jaw drops. His eyes are glued to Angela as the routine progresses, and he begins imagining that she is standing alone on the court, dancing provocatively for him. She winks at him, running her hands down her body, and she starts to unzip her sweater, revealing bare skin underneath. As she takes the sweater off, a cloud of bright red rose petals flows out from beneath the cloth.
Suddenly, Lester snaps back to reality and is once again in the crowded basketball stadium, watching the cheerleaders as they hit their final pose. As the crowd claps, Lester sits motionless, his mouth still open. The game over, Jane and her friend walk out of the gym and see that Jane's parents are waiting in the parking lot. As Carolyn tells Jane how much she enjoyed the performance, Lester awkwardly introduces himself to Angela and tells her she was very "precise." A beaming Carolyn tells Jane that she "didn't screw up once!" Carolyn says they need to leave, turns, and walks away. Lester asks the girls what they're doing, and Angela says they're going out for pizza. He brightly asks if they need a ride, but Angela tells him that she has a car. He starts babbling, telling her that Jane is thinking of getting a car, but Jane cuts him off by coldly reminding him that Carolyn has already left. He smiles mawkishly and tells Angela that it was nice to meet her. Jane looks at him like he's crazy, and he finally leaves. Jane is horrified by her dad's behavior, but Angela merely comments that she thinks he and Carolyn "haven't had sex in a long time."
In some ways, American Beauty has a fairly traditional plot structure. The first section of the film introduces the main characters and outlines their characteristics through a series of illuminating interactions. The "problem" of the film is revealed, and the audience begins to connect with the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists. At the same time, these first scenes also introduce some of the ways in which American Beauty will deviate from the traditional and the expected. First of all, the movie begins by giving away the ending: in a year's time Lester Burnham, the protagonist, will be dead. Even more unexpected is the audience's almost immediate realization that the "problem" of the film is not Lester's death, but rather his life.
The focus of the film is on a seemingly typical nuclear American family consisting of Lester, Carolyn and Jane Burnham. In only a few brief scenes, Mendes reveals that this is a family in crisis: Lester and Carolyn quietly despise each other, and Jane displays startlingly low self-esteem and a high degree of animosity towards her parents. Lester Burnham accurately and pithily sums up the character of Carolyn Burnham when he notes that the handles of her gardening shears perfectly - and intentionally - match her gardening clogs. Carolyn, it seems, is a woman determined to control the appearance of things past the point of normalcy, and who fervently believes that by doing so she effectively prevents others from noticing how imperfect her life really is. Carolyn strips down to her underwear and scrubs a house that she is trying to sell until it is spotless because she believes that doing so will cause people to look on the house through her eyes, rather than through their own more critical ones. Carolyn is wholly focused on surface appearances: she comments that her daughter must be trying to look unattractive, and in doing so ignores the possibility that Jane may be attempting to send her a signal that she is in need of love, attention, or help.
Despite his status as the film's protagonist and narrator, Lester cannot escape his identity as something of a loser. A grown man who masturbates in the shower, drops the contents of his briefcase all over the front walk, and huddles in the backseat while his wife and daughter shepherd him to work - all before 9am - can hardly be viewed as strong and masculine. However, it is Lester's failings that position him as the film's hero; it is his humanity that makes his story so poignant and deeply meaningful. Though Jane and Carolyn's pain is also apparent, it is Lester that the film focuses on, Lester who is followed from home to work and back home again. Clearly, Lester's misery is a product of his environment. Lester is a loser because Lester lives the life of a loser. The audience understands that Lester's failings are simply byproducts of his lifestyle, and thus sympathizes with this everyman hero as he combats the indignities that he must suffer each day.
At the same time, one cannot help but feel that Lester is at least somewhat deserving of his pathetic condition. While he seems unhappy about the current state of his relationship with his daughter, he must be dragged to her cheerleading performance, all the while complaining about missing a TV show. His marriage is a wreck, but Lester reacts not by working on his relationship with his wife, but by creating vivid (and deeply inappropriate) fantasies about one of his daughter's friends. Indeed, Jane's complaints about her father at the beginning of the film ("I need a father, not some horny geek-boy") seem largely supported by his actions. While Lester does not seem like a bad sort, and thus does not really deserve an unloving wife or an unsatisfying job, it is his own inability to take control of his life that stands in the way of his happiness - no one is forcing him to live as he does. Lester's humanity is what enables the audience to relate to him...and what hopefully enables them to apply the lessons that Lester learns over the course of the film to their own lives.