If American Beauty had a subtitle to describe its Dharma related theme, it would be called American Beauty: How NOT to have a Spiritual Partnership. The film, which is the wonderful first collaboration between director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Conrad Hall (their following collaboration, Road to Perdition, was Hall’s final film project before his death in 2003), is also a tour de force by actors Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. In the film, Spacey and Bening play Lester and Carolyn Burnham, a married but deeply estranged suburban couple in their mid-forties. They are successful professionals with a nice home and a bright and beautiful daughter. All seems well. However, what stirs below the surface is a different story. Lester is so profoundly dissatisfied with his life that he quits his job, begins to pursue the friend of his young daughter and is unaffected by the infidelity of his wife.
Although few of us unravel to the extent that Lester does, the dissatisfaction that he feels is not hard to imagine. What is particularly interesting to the Dharma seeker is that we get to see a character who understands that life as he is currently living it will never in a million years bring him happiness. In this respect, Lester is way ahead of the crowd. Sadly, the perverse form of “renunciation” that follows only leads Lester further into the mire of samsara. If Lester had only had the good fortune of a Spiritual Partners teaching, he would have realized that his dissatisfaction was not based on the world changing around him but rather, the changes forced on him by his own karma. Lamenting the dull predictability that now governing his life, he asks his wife, now a straight-laced real estate broker, “What ever happened to the girl who used to feign seizures at Frat parties?” How much better it would it have been Lester, my friend, to realize that there was no entertainment and no satisfaction outside yourself. There was no wife feigning seizures, there was no laughter and no loving mother of your daughter that did not come from own karma. So take heart and take responsibility for your own happiness by making the happiness of others your first priority!