Scholars and academics have offered many possible readings of American Beauty; film critics are similarly divided, not so much about the quality of the film as their interpretations of it. Described by many as about "the meaning of life" or "the hollow existence of the American suburbs", the film has defied categorization by even the filmmakers. Mendes is indecisive, saying the script seemed to be about something different each time he read it: "a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia, a series of love stories; [...] it was about imprisonment, [...] loneliness [and] beauty. It was funny; it was angry, sad." The literary critic and author Wayne C. Booth concludes that the film resists any one interpretation: "[American Beauty] cannot be adequately summarized as 'here is a satire on what's wrong with American life'; that plays down the celebration of beauty. It is more tempting to summarize it as 'a portrait of the beauty underlying American miseries and misdeeds'; but that plays down the scenes of cruelty and horror, and Ball's disgust with our mores. It cannot be summarized with either Lester's or Ricky's philosophical statements about what life is or how one should live." He argues that the problem of interpreting the film is tied with that of finding its center—a controlling voice who "[unites] all of the choices".[nb 1] He contends that in American Beauty 's case it is neither Mendes nor Ball. Mendes considers the voice to be Ball's, but even while the writer was "strongly influential" on set, he often had to accept deviations from his vision, particularly ones that transformed the cynical tone of his script into something more optimistic. With "innumerable voices intruding on the original author's," Booth says, those who interpret American Beauty "have forgotten to probe for the elusive center". According to Booth, the film's true controller is the creative energy "that hundreds of people put into its production, agreeing and disagreeing, inserting and cutting".
Imprisonment and redemption
Mendes called American Beauty a rites of passage film about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment. The monotony of Lester's existence is established through his gray, nondescript workplace and characterless clothing. In these scenes, he is often framed as if trapped, "reiterating rituals that hardly please him". He masturbates in the confines of his shower; the shower stall evokes a jail cell and the shot is the first of many where Lester is confined behind bars or within frames, such as when he is reflected behind columns of numbers on a computer monitor, "confined [and] nearly crossed out". The academic and author Jody W. Pennington argues that Lester's journey is the story's center. His sexual reawakening through meeting Angela is the first of several turning points as he begins to "[throw] off the responsibilities of the comfortable life he has come to despise". After Lester shares a joint with Ricky, his spirit is released and he begins to rebel against Carolyn. Changed by Ricky's "attractive, profound confidence", Lester is convinced that Angela is attainable and sees that he must question his "banal, numbingly materialist suburban existence"; he takes a job at a fast-food outlet, which allows him to regress to a point when he could "see his whole life ahead of him".
When Lester is caught masturbating by Carolyn, his angry retort about their lack of intimacy is the first time he says aloud what he thinks about her. By confronting the issue and Carolyn's "superficial investments in others", Lester is trying to "regain a voice in a home that [only respects] the voices of mother and daughter". His final turning point comes when he and Angela almost have sex; after she confesses her virginity, he no longer thinks of her as a sex object, but as a daughter. He holds her close and "wraps her up". Mendes called it "the most satisfying end to [Lester's] journey there could possibly have been". With these final scenes, Mendes intended to show Lester at the conclusion of a "mythical quest". After Lester gets a beer from the refrigerator, the camera pushes toward him, then stops facing a hallway down which he walks "to meet his fate". Having begun to act his age again, Lester achieves closure. As he smiles at a family photo, the camera pans slowly from Lester to the kitchen wall, onto which blood spatters as a gunshot rings out; the slow pan reflects the peace of Lester's death. His body is discovered by Jane and Ricky. Mendes said that Ricky's staring into Lester's dead eyes is "the culmination of the theme" of the film: that beauty is found where it is least expected.
Conformity and beauty
Like other American films of 1999—such as Fight Club, Bringing Out the Dead and Magnolia—American Beauty instructs its audience to "[lead] more meaningful lives". The film argues the case against conformity, but does not deny that people need and want it; even the gay characters just want to fit in. Jim and Jim, the Burnhams' other neighbors, are a satire of "gay bourgeois coupledom", who "[invest] in the numbing sameness" that the film criticizes in heterosexual couples.[nb 2] The feminist academic and author Sally R. Munt argues that American Beauty uses its "art house" trappings to direct its message of non-conformity primarily to the middle classes, and that this approach is a "cliché of bourgeois preoccupation; [...] the underlying premise being that the luxury of finding an individual 'self' through denial and renunciation is always open to those wealthy enough to choose, and sly enough to present themselves sympathetically as a rebel."
Professor Roy M. Anker argues that the film's thematic center is its direction to the audience to "look closer". The opening combines an unfamiliar viewpoint of the Burnhams' neighborhood with Lester's narrated admission that he will soon die, forcing audiences to consider their own mortality and the beauty around them. It also sets a series of mysteries; Anker asks, "from what place exactly, and from what state of being, is he telling this story? If he's already dead, why bother with whatever it is he wishes to tell about his last year of being alive? There is also the question of how Lester has died—or will die." Anker believes the preceding scene—Jane's discussion with Ricky about the possibility of his killing her father—adds further mystery. Professor Ann C. Hall disagrees; she says by presenting an early resolution to the mystery, the film allows the audience to put it aside "to view the film and its philosophical issues". Through this examination of Lester's life, rebirth and death, American Beauty satirizes American middle class notions of meaning, beauty and satisfaction. Even Lester's transformation only comes about because of the possibility of sex with Angela; he therefore remains a "willing devotee of the popular media's exultation of pubescent male sexuality as a route to personal wholeness". Carolyn is similarly driven by conventional views of happiness; from her belief in "house beautiful" domestic bliss to her car and gardening outfit, Carolyn's domain is a "fetching American millennial vision of Pleasantville, or Eden". The Burnhams are unaware that they are "materialists philosophically, and devout consumers ethically" who expect the "rudiments of American beauty" to give them happiness. Anker argues that "they are helpless in the face of the prettified economic and sexual stereotypes [...] that they and their culture have designated for their salvation."
The film presents Ricky as its "visionary, [...] spiritual and mystical center". He sees beauty in the minutiae of everyday life, videoing as much as he can for fear of missing it. He shows Jane what he considers the most beautiful thing he has filmed: a plastic bag, tossing in the wind in front of a wall. He says capturing the moment was when he realized that there was "an entire life behind things"; he feels that "sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it... and my heart is going to cave in." Anker argues that Ricky, in looking past the "cultural dross", has "[grasped] the radiant splendor of the created world" to see God. As the film progresses, the Burnhams move closer to Ricky's view of the world. Lester only forswears personal satisfaction at the film's end. On the cusp of having sex with Angela, he returns to himself after she admits her virginity. Suddenly confronted with a child, he begins to treat her as a daughter; in doing so Lester sees himself, Angela and his family "for the poor and fragile but wondrous creatures they are". He looks at a picture of his family in happier times, and dies having had an epiphany that infuses him with "wonder, joy, and soul-shaking gratitude"—he has finally seen the world as it is.
According to Patti Bellantoni, colors are used symbolically throughout the film, none more so than red, which is an important thematic signature that drives the story and "[defines] Lester's arc". First seen in drab colors that reflect his passivity, Lester surrounds himself with red as he regains his individuality. The American Beauty rose is repeatedly used as symbol; when Lester fantasizes about Angela, she is usually naked and surrounded by rose petals. In these scenes, the rose symbolizes Lester's desire for her. When associated with Carolyn, the rose represents a "façade for suburban success". Roses are included in almost every shot inside the Burnhams' home, where they signify "a mask covering a bleak, unbeautiful reality". Carolyn feels that "as long as there can be roses, all is well". She cuts the roses and puts them in vases, where they adorn her "meretricious vision of what makes for beauty" and begin to die. The roses in the vase in the Angela–Lester seduction scene symbolize Lester's previous life and Carolyn; the camera pushes in as Lester and Angela get closer, finally taking the roses—and thus Carolyn—out of the shot. Lester's epiphany at the end of the film is expressed via rain and the use of red, building to a crescendo that is a deliberate contrast to the release Lester feels. The constant use of red "lulls [the audience] subliminally" into becoming used to it; consequently, it leaves the audience unprepared when Lester is shot and his blood spatters on the wall.
Sexuality and repression
Pennington argues that American Beauty defines its characters through their sexuality. Lester's attempts to relive his youth are a direct result of his lust for Angela, and the state of his relationship with Carolyn is in part shown through their lack of sexual contact. Also sexually frustrated, Carolyn has an affair that takes her from "cold perfectionist" to a more carefree soul who "[sings] happily along with" the music in her car. Jane and Angela constantly reference sex, through Angela's descriptions of her supposed sexual encounters and the way the girls address each other. Their nude scenes are used to communicate their vulnerability. By the end of the film, Angela's hold on Jane has weakened until the only power she has over her friend is Lester's attraction to her. Col. Fitts reacts with disgust to meeting Jim and Jim; he asks, "How come these faggots always have to rub it in your face? How can they be so shameless?" To which Ricky replies, "That's the thing, Dad—they don't feel like it's anything to be ashamed of." Pennington argues that Col. Fitts' reaction is not homophobic, but an "anguished self-interrogation".
With other turn-of-the-millennium films such as Fight Club, In the Company of Men (1997), American Psycho (2000) and Boys Don't Cry (1999), American Beauty "raises the broader, widely explored issue of masculinity in crisis". Professor Vincent Hausmann charges that in their reinforcement of masculinity "against threats posed by war, by consumerism, and by feminist and queer challenges", these films present a need to "focus on, and even to privilege" aspects of maleness "deemed 'deviant'". Lester's transformation conveys "that he, and not the woman, has borne the brunt of [lack of being]"[nb 3] and he will not stand for being emasculated. Lester's attempts to "strengthen traditional masculinity" conflict with his responsibilities as a father. Although the film portrays the way Lester returns to that role positively, he does not become "the hypermasculine figure implicitly celebrated in films like Fight Club". Hausmann concludes that Lester's behavior toward Angela is "a misguided but nearly necessary step toward his becoming a father again".
Hausmann says the film "explicitly affirms the importance of upholding the prohibition against incest"; a recurring theme of Ball's work is his comparison of the taboos against incest and homosexuality. Instead of making an overt distinction, American Beauty looks at how their repression can lead to violence. Col. Fitts is so ashamed of his homosexuality that it drives him to murder Lester. Ball said, "The movie is in part about how homophobia is based in fear and repression and about what [they] can do." The film implies two unfulfilled incestuous desires: Lester's pursuit of Angela is a manifestation of his lust for his own daughter, while Col. Fitts' repression is exhibited through the almost sexualized discipline with which he controls Ricky. Consequently, Ricky realizes that he can only hurt his father by falsely telling him he is homosexual, while Angela's vulnerability and submission to Lester reminds him of his responsibilities and the limits of his fantasy. Col. Fitts represents Ball's father, whose repressed homosexual desires led to his own unhappiness. Ball rewrote Col. Fitts to delay revealing him as homosexual, which Munt reads as a possible "deferment of Ball's own patriarchal-incest fantasies".
Temporality and music
American Beauty follows a traditional narrative structure, only deviating with the displaced opening scene of Jane and Ricky from the middle of the story. Although the plot spans one year, the film is narrated by Lester at the moment of his death. Jacqueline Furby says that the plot "occupies [...] no time [or] all time", citing Lester's claim that life did not flash before his eyes, but that it "stretches on forever like an ocean of time". Furby argues that a "rhythm of repetition" forms the core of the film's structure. For example, two scenes see the Burnhams sitting down to an evening meal, shot from the same angle. Each image is broadly similar, with minor differences in object placement and body language that reflect the changed dynamic brought on by Lester's new-found assertiveness. Another example is the pair of scenes in which Jane and Ricky film each other. Ricky films Jane from his bedroom window as she removes her bra, and the image is reversed later for a similarly "voyeuristic and exhibitionist" scene in which Jane films Ricky at a vulnerable moment.
Lester's fantasies are emphasized by slow motion and repetitive motion shots; Mendes uses double-and-triple cut backs in several sequences, and the score alters to make the audience aware that it is entering a fantasy. One example is the gymnasium scene—Lester's first encounter with Angela. While the cheerleaders perform their half-time routine to "On Broadway", Lester becomes increasingly fixated on Angela. Time slows to represent his "voyeuristic hypnosis" and Lester begins to fantasize that Angela's performance is for him alone. "On Broadway"—which provides a conventional underscore to the onscreen action—is replaced by discordant, percussive music that lacks melody or progression. This nondiegetic score is important to creating the narrative stasis in the sequence; it conveys a moment for Lester that is stretched to an indeterminate length. The effect is one that Stan Link likens to "vertical time", described by the composer and music theorist Jonathan Kramer as music that imparts "a single present stretched out into an enormous duration, a potentially infinite 'now' that nonetheless feels like an instant".[nb 4] The music is used like a visual cue, so that Lester and the score are staring at Angela. The sequence ends with the sudden reintroduction of "On Broadway" and teleological time.
According to Drew Miller of Stylus, the soundtrack "[gives] unconscious voice" to the characters' psyches and complements the subtext. The most obvious use of pop music "accompanies and gives context to" Lester's attempts to recapture his youth; reminiscent of how the counterculture of the 1960s combated American repression through music and drugs, Lester begins to smoke cannabis and listen to rock music.[nb 5] Mendes' song choices "progress through the history of American popular music". Miller argues that although some may be over familiar, there is a parodic element at work, "making good on [the film's] encouragement that viewers look closer". Toward the end of the film, Thomas Newman's score features more prominently, creating "a disturbing tempo" that matches the tension of the visuals. The exception is "Don't Let It Bring You Down", which plays during Angela's seduction of Lester. At first appropriate, its tone clashes as the seduction stops. The lyrics, which speak of "castles burning", can be seen as a metaphor for Lester's view of Angela—"the rosy, fantasy-driven exterior of the 'American Beauty'"—as it burns away to reveal "the timid, small-breasted girl who, like his wife, has willfully developed a false public self".