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American Beauty Summary and Analysis

by Sam Mendes

Scene 13 ("Mom's Mad") through Scene 16 ("The Most Beautiful Thing")

Summary

Back in Brad's office, Brad is reading Lester's job description aloud: Lester, it seems, has written a vitriolic, sarcastic, and all-too-honest account of his duties as an employee. When Brad summarily fires Lester, Lester promptly blackmails the company. When his efforts don't appear to be working, Lester tells Brad that he'll throw in a sexual harassment charge against him. Having emerged the victor in yet another conflict, Lester walks out of the office carrying a box filled with his things and raising a fist in victory.

Carolyn sits in an expensive-looking restaurant, and Buddy walks in to meet her, apologizing for being late. He tells her that his wife has just left him - she departed for New York that morning. He confides that Christie thought he was too devoted to his career and Carolyn looks shocked, then sympathetic: they always looked like such a perfect couple. Buddy tells Carolyn that according to his philosophy, "one must project an image of success at all times."

The next scene opens with a grainy image of a dead bird - Ricky is filming once again. An unseen person asks him what he's doing, and he raises his camera to reveal Jane and Angela. He tells them that he was filming the bird "because it's beautiful." Angela makes a face and tells him he forgot his medication. He zooms in closer on Jane and says hello to her. She asks him to stop filming her, and he lowers the camera. Angela stalks off as Jane asks Ricky if he needs a ride, but Ricky tells her that he's happy to walk. Jane says that she'll walk, too.

The scene then shifts to a parking lot outside a motel. From outside one of the rooms, we can hear the sound of loud moans. Inside, Buddy and Carolyn are having enthusiastic sex with repeated references to Buddy's status as the "king". Inside his car, Lester is happily singing along with the music and smoking a joint. He pulls into a drive-through, where he is asked if he wants to try a special. He orders, then drives up to the window. He notices a Help Wanted sign in the window and asks for an application, saying he's "looking for the least possible amount of responsibility." Inside, a confused manager interviews Lester, saying that he has far too much experience for the job, but Lester is insistent. Back in the motel room, Carolyn and Buddy are lying on the bed. Carolyn woozily thanks Buddy, telling him that she's been "so stressed out." Buddy tells her that when he's stressed out, he fires a gun. He suggests that Carolyn try it, and they begin to kiss again.

On the walk home, Jane asks Ricky how he likes his new house. She tells Ricky about how her mother cut down their previous neighbor's tree. They see a funeral procession pass, and Ricky asks Jane if she's ever known anyone who died. She hasn't, and neither has he, but he tells her about a dead homeless woman he once saw. They watch the cars pass. He tells her that he taped the woman "because it was amazing." He tells Jane that seeing someone who has died is "like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you're careful you can look back." He tells her you see "beauty."

They go inside Ricky's house to find his mother sitting at the table and staring into space. Ricky attempts to introduce her to Jane, but she continues to stare off into the distance. He puts his hand on her shoulder, and she smiles at him, then seems to focus. She apologizes for the house, and Jane looks around, confused: the house is spotless. Ricky takes her into his dad's office, where she notices a cabinet full of guns. He says that he wants to show her something and goes to unlock a cabinet, commenting that his dad would kill him if he knew about this. He has keys to everything, because one of his clients is a locksmith, and once he let him pay him by making keys to everything in the house. Ricky takes a plate out of the cabinet and shows it to Jane. She turns it over to see a swastika. He tells her that it's "official state china of the Third Reich." Jane stares at him blankly. Ricky asks her what's wrong, and if she's scared of him. She tells him she's not, and he says that next he wants to show her "the most beautiful thing" he's ever filmed.

They sit in front of Ricky's television, watching a film of a plastic bag blowing around with the leaves in front of a brick wall. The bag dances this way and that, seeming to take on a life of its own. Ricky explains that the day he filmed the bag was the day he "realized that there was this entire life behind things...and that there was no reason to be afraid...ever." Jane just watches and listens. Finally, she turns and looks at Ricky. "Sometimes," says Ricky with tears in his eyes, "there is so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in." Jane reaches out and takes his hand in both of hers. He looks down at it, then looks at her. She leans in and kisses him. When she pulls away, she smiles, then suddenly asks what time it is.

Analysis

Much of the humor in American Beauty comes from playing with traditional ideas of "American-ness". One of the dominant stereotypes of American culture is that Americans are obsessed with work and don't know how to enjoy life. At the advertising agency, Lester certainly fulfilled this stereotype. Every day, he became bitterer and more apathetic. When Lester quits his job, the audience cannot help but cheer for him despite the act's overt irresponsibility. By quitting his job, Lester takes on the role of the "little guy" standing up to corrupt Corporate America. Even Lester's threat of bringing a sexual harassment charge against Brad seems perfectly justifiable in light of Brad's smug, condescending attitude.

Lester's move becomes even more humorous when he decides to seek employment at a fast-food chain (yet another iconographic symbol of American homogenization). Lester seems to be constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. He is so out of touch with his true desires that he must start from the beginning, from the last time he can remember enjoying life: with Ricky, he recalls how happy he was when he was doing nothing but flipping burgers and partying, and now seeks to recapture that sense of unfettered joy. In order to arrive at his true adult persona, Lester must first recapture a youthful appreciation of the world around him.

Meanwhile, Carolyn has also begun to make extreme choices in an effort to break free from the monotonous misery of her life. When Carolyn meets Buddy Kane for lunch, she is not yet doing anything overtly "wrong". She finds nothing humiliating about admitting to Buddy that she thinks that he is far superior to her on a professional level. Only when Buddy tells her that his wife has just left him and that his appearance of perfection is an act does Carolyn see any possibility of a relationship between them: her self-esteem is so low that she can only relate to Buddy as an equal once she has learned of his flaws. One might wonder why Carolyn, who clearly values the appearance of perfection above all things, would be more attracted to Buddy Kane after he reveals his imperfections. First, Buddy Kane reveals his problems in such a mature, impeccable manner that Carolyn cannot help but be in awe of his comportment even in the face of adversity (witness her own, decidedly different, responses to marital strife). Even in the face of tragedy and humiliation, Buddy Kane acts like a gentleman. Second, in revealing that he values the appearance of perfection rather than perfection itself, Buddy validates Carolyn's belief that acting like nothing is wrong is just as good as having nothing wrong.

The theory of beauty introduced by Ricky is the moral and aesthetic opposite of Buddy Kane and Carolyn Burnham's philosophy on life. Ricky finds beauty in human weakness, in naked reality. He sees more value in that which is hidden - like Jane's smile - than that which is displayed for everyone to see - like Angela Hayes' painted-on face. Ricky tells Jane that the simplicity of death is like seeing God made corporeal. The sight of a dead bird or a plastic bag makes him feel that the world is a beautiful, wonderful place. Indeed, the world itself is rendered more beautiful when seen through Ricky's eyes: one can imagine that even if Ricky witnessed one of Lester and Carolyn's horrible, bitter fights, he would see it for what it was: two lonely, frightened people in search of solace, both desperate to prevent their partner from knowing just how lonely and frightened they really are.

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