I am Lester’s complete lack of surprise: Comparing Fight Club and American Beauty
TWIN FILMS are created when two separate studios produce two separate movies within a close timeframe that happen to share a very similar plot or premise. Think Finding Nemo and Shark Tale (2003/4), Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down (2013) or even Antz and A Bug’s Life (1998). Admittedly, American Beauty and Fight Club wouldn’t exactly spring to mind when asked to name another pair, but their plots are remarkably similar when you delve into them.
In these 1999 films, the main characters (who also serve as narrators) become increasingly dissatisfied with their average and monotonous lives which are presented as typical of 1990s America. They quit their office jobs – which they were already failing at – as a result, but don’t bow out quietly. Both go into their respective bosses’ offices and blackmail them to receive large severance packages which allow them to fund their new, self-destructive lifestyles and reject society’s expectations of them.
American Beauty and Fight Club are definitely products of their time, representing the frustrations of America life in the late 90s. They centre on the idea that a regular existence is unfulfilling and bland; where being “ordinary” is meaningless and the worst thing one can be. Only through the breaking free of this mould is life worth living. For Fight Club, this manifests itself in the Narrator creating an “interesting” alter ego – Tyler Durden – who goes on to create ‘fight clubs’ where men come together to cathartically find their identity and become “someone” through beating the hell out of one another. To quote one of Tyler’s pre-Fight Club monologues:
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.”
However, the Narrator’s self-destruction does not stop with Fight Club. The network of disenfranchised men he and Tyler create becomes bigger than them and morphs into Project Mayhem – an attempt to destroy America’s consumerist society. Through Project Mayhem, life would return to a simpler time where man is lives his life as a hunter-gatherer, sowing the land, hunting big game and “wear[ing] leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life.” Fight Club becomes the ultimate rejection of society.
In this war against the norm, “self-improvement is masturbation” while self-destruction is idolised. Trying to look good is simply a self-gratifying endeavour which reflects the consumerist society in the 1990s. When the main characters do work out, it is for Fight Club, where they find self-destructive purpose and identity. Likewise, for American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, working out is an integral part of his self-destructive journey. At the start of the film, Lester divulges that literal masturbation is the high-point of his monotonous day, but he finds purpose through regressing to living as he did 20 years ago when life was simpler. At this time he had few worries apart from how he would get a girlfriend and to this end the new Lester works out to impress his daughter’s best friend, Angela.
It is very easy to brush off Lester’s self-destruction as a midlife crisis as he quits his job, buys his dream car and goes after girls half his age. However, like with Fight Club, the film represents a social critique of American life in the 1990s – specifically suburban life – and all of Lester’s family experience it. His wife has an affair and his daughter finds solace in the strange, drug-dealing kid next door – both to escape their own tedious and unfulfilling lives.
In a similar vein, Angela – the muse of Lester’s self-destructive journey – casually remarks that “there’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.” Angela consistently promotes herself as an overly-sexualised character as a result, always wanting to talk about her sexual encounters, while you later learn that she is, in fact, a virgin. When she is accused of being ordinary as the film climaxes, it cuts her to the quick and she has to be reassured by Lester that “you couldn’t be ordinary if you tried.” As with Fight Club, to be ordinary is to be nothing. If you do not stand out in some way, your life has no purpose.
So, are American Beauty and Fight Club twin films? Maybe not in the traditional sense of the term. They focus on different areas of the dissatisfaction with American life in the late 90s, with one concentrating on the suburban family man and the other honing in on the 20/30-something who is finding his way. This frustration also manifests itself in different ways. Lester nostalgically seeks to return to his glory days when life was enjoyable, whereas the Narrator/Tyler attempts to take society away from consumerism and back to its primitive hunter-gatherer state.
This being said, it is very easy to see Lester attending his local Fight Club chapter and it is equally easy to see the Narrator becoming Lester in a decade or so. Both of these characters seek purpose in, and escape from, a world that they share but don’t relate to. It is only the way they go about resolving their disenfranchisement which separates them as characters, in the process creating two films that appear so different on the surface.