4 November 2015
Voiceover in American Beauty
“My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This... is my life. I'm forty-two years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead”- Lester Burnham narrates through voiceover in the opening of American Beauty. Although voiceovers tend to be cliche, American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ satirical film centered upon American suburbia, utilizes this tool to strengthen its message. Lester, the protagonist, hooks the audience through the use of voiceovers on three separate occasions in the film- the opening sequence, the beginning of his last day of life, and the final scene. Film critics ...view middle of the document...
However, there is irony in this narration because Lester feels as though his life is actually a mess and has lost all meaning. Within this first narration, Lester claims that he will die sometime that year, which is not an event that cannot be seen until the very end of the movie. The reason why the “show, don’t tell” method does not apply to the first voiceover in American Beauty is because there is no way to show that Lester will die without giving away all the important details involving his death. If the actual death scene was shown in the opening of the movie, it would simply not make any sense. This voiceover establishes mystery that can’t help but leave viewers curious as to what is happening within his life that will lead to his inevitable death.
Lester’s first voiceover also establishes a sense of who he is as a person and gives insight into his ordinary lifestyle. He addresses the viewers in a monotone, unenthusiastic voice when talking about how his feelings for his family and where he lives: “That's my wife Carolyn. See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident...She wasn't always like this. She used to be happy. We used to be happy.” This reveals that Lester thinks Carolyn is now a pathetic and unhappy housewife who puts on a cover to act like their lives are perfect when it reality, they are not. His matter-of-fact way of speaking establishes a sense of mystery for the audience, making them wonder how their marriage became so dull and lifeless. Lester makes it a point that their lives were not always this way and that there was a point when he and Carolyn were truly in love. However, he points out something hidden in plain sight when addressing how Caroline matches her gardening shears to her clogs. This reveals that Carolyn now prioritizes looking prim and proper over making sure that she has a healthy relationship with Lester. Without this voiceover, the audience would only be able to see Lester as pessimistic and would not be able to understand the reasoning behind his current feelings toward Carolyn. This provides a background into how Lester was once happy with his life and how he is now struggling to get that back.
He also describes his daughter Jane through voiceover in the beginning of the film: “My daughter Jane. Only child. Janie's a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass…But I don't want to lie to her.” Lester talks about Jane in a way that normal parents would not; whereas most parents would brag about how great their children are, he characterizes Jane for who she really is and does not cover this up by saying how she is wonderful or extraordinary. However, Lester’s statements about Jane are ironic because she is the only character to get over her anger and confusion and have a happy ending. Also, by saying that Jane’s anger, insecurity, and confusion never really go away, Lester...