American Beauty

American Beauty Summary and Analysis of Scene 17 ("Pass the Asparagus") through Scene 20 ("Massive Psychological Damage")


Carolyn and Lester are eating dinner as usual, though Lester eats with much more gusto than we saw earlier. Jane walks in and apologizes for being late. Carolyn, speaking in an almost hysterically upbeat tone, suggests that Lester tell Jane about his day at work. He cheerily tells his daughter that today he quit and blackmailed his boss for almost sixty thousand dollars. Lester and Carolyn then begin to fight viciously, Lester greeting Carolyn's belittling statements with sarcasm and vitriol of his own. Carolyn keeps trying to stress Lester's irresponsibility while Lester asks her repeatedly to pass the asparagus, commenting in between requests that he already has another job. When Jane tries to leave, Lester shouts at her to "sit down!" Shocked at this new side of her father, Jane sits, and both Jane and Carolyn stare at Lester. Lester then gets up, walks to the other end of the table, picks up the asparagus platter, and returns to his seat. He calmly and clearly states, "I'm sick and tired of being treated like I don't exist." When Carolyn interrupts him and continues to rant, Lester stands up, smiles, and throws the asparagus platter against the wall. This dramatic act has the intended effect: Carolyn shuts up. Lester pleasantly tells Carolyn not to interrupt him, and then sits down and continues to eat his dinner. After a pause, he tells Carolyn that they're going to start alternating their dinner music.

Later, in her room, Jane sits silently. Someone knocks, and she tells them to go away. Her mother asks her to let her in, and Jane gets up and opens the door. Tearing up, Carolyn apologizes for the scene at the table, and Jane calls both her parents freaks. Carolyn starts to cry, and Jane relents a little. Carolyn starts to tell Jane that the "most important lesson in life" is that "you cannot count on anyone except yourself." Jane responds sarcastically and Carolyn slaps her, accusing her of being ungrateful. Jane just looks at Carolyn, who turns and storms out of the room. Jane then looks in the mirror and touches her cheek where her mother hit her. She turns to the window and walks towards it. Ricky is standing there with his camera. He waves. Jane glances around the room. She takes off her long-sleeved flannel shirt, and then her t-shirt, until she is standing in front of the window in her bra. She lets down her hair, and then slides off her bra. Ricky zooms in on her face.

Suddenly Ricky's door bursts open and Colonel Fitts storms in, shouting about Ricky having "gotten in" somewhere. Ricky tries to cover the window as Jane pulls the curtain over herself, and Colonel Fitts begins to hit Ricky with his fists, all the while shouting at him to get up and fight back. The Colonel kicks the camera away, and Ricky tells him he won't fight him, and that he picked the lock. The Colonel wants to know what he was looking for, and Ricky tells him that he just wanted to "show my girlfriend your Nazi plate." At that, the Colonel stops and listens as Ricky, blood dripping down his face, tells him about Jane. The Colonel sits in a chair, gasping for breath. He says that the beating was for Ricky's own good, because he has "no respect." Ricky agrees and apologizes, asking his father not to "give up" on him. Finally the Colonel tells him to stay out of that room and turns to leave. Ricky pulls himself up with some effort. He goes to the mirror and looks at himself, dabbing at his eye.

Carolyn stands in a shooting range, shooting a gun directly at the camera. The shot swings wide, revealing a man standing behind her. The man - presumably an instructor - comments that she's a natural, and she tells him that she "loves shooting this gun." In the car on the way home, Carolyn sings along loudly to Frank Sinatra's "Don't rain on my parade." A handgun sits on the passenger seat. She waves happily at one of Buddy's billboards as she passes by. Just as Carolyn is about to pull into the driveway, however, she is silenced by the sight of a red 1970 Pontiac Firebird. She goes inside, furious, and a tiny remote-controlled car zooms in front of her, blocking her way.

Lester is sitting on a chair, his feet up on the coffee table. She asks him whose car is out there, and he tells her that it's his - it's the car he's always wanted. She asks where the Camry is and he tells her he traded it in. She starts to continue their argument, but he cuts her off, telling her she looks great. She sits and asks where Jane is. He tells her that she's not home, and goes to sit next to Carolyn on the couch. Suddenly, in a softer tone than he's ever used with her before, he asks her when she "became so joyless." With a teasing undercurrent to her voice, she tells him that "there's plenty of joy in my life." Lester asks her what happened to the girl she used to be, reminding her of the crazy things she used to do. He starts to kiss her neck, and she moans softly. She begins to lean into him, but then suddenly notices that he's holding a beer bottle and comments that he's going to "spill beer on the couch." He gets up, the mood killed, and tells her it's "just a couch!" She tries to justify herself by emphasizing how expensive it was, but he shouts again that "it's just a couch," slamming a pillow into it repeatedly. He unleashes a torrent of words at her, trying to get her to see that this "stuff" is not more important than life. Carolyn runs upstairs, looking like she's about to cry.

Ricky is taping Jane as she lies reclining on a bed. Jane tells Ricky to stop, but he doesn't. She tells him that it's weird watching herself, and the camera zooms out, revealing that they are in Ricky's room, and that Jane can see the shot of herself on his television. She sits up, takes the camera and turns it on Ricky, who is standing shirtless in front of her. She asks, "you don't feel naked?" and he smiles and replies that he is naked. She asks him about being the hospital, and he tells her that when he was fifteen, his dad caught him smoking pot and sent him to military school. He got kicked out, they had a fight, and his dad hit him. The next day he got into a fight with a kid at school and Ricky admits that he would have killed him if no one had stopped him. Then his dad put him in the hospital, where he stayed for two years.

Jane comments that Ricky must really hate his father, but Ricky tells her that "he's not a bad man." Jane comments that she would hate her dad if he did something like that to her, but then remembers that she already hates him. Ricky takes a puff off of a joint, then stands up and takes the camera, turning it on Jane and asking her why. Jane tells her about her dad's crush on Angela, then admits that she wishes she were as important to him as Angela is. Jane tells Ricky that her father is "doing massive psychological damage" to her, but doesn't elaborate. Then, becoming more serious, she tells him that she "needs a father who's a role model." Suddenly, we realize that this is the scene with which the movie began. Ricky asks Jane if she wants him to kill her father for her, and she looks straight into the camera and says that she does. She reveals that she has three thousand dollars she was saving for a "boob job." Ricky starts zooming in and out on Jane's breasts, and they both laugh. Ricky comments that hiring someone to kill your father isn't very nice, to which she replies that she's "not a very nice girl." The camera zooms in on Jane's eyes, and then Ricky turns it off. Jane says, "You know I'm not serious, right?" Ricky says that he does. They lay down on the bed, and Ricky strokes her cheek, commenting on how lucky they are.


Lester recognizes that his relationship with his daughter is problematic for two major reasons: his life (until recently, at least) was boring, and he didn't expect her to be interested in it. Now, however, his circumstances have changed. He is starting to understand that he and he alone is responsible for his life. He also realizes that he needs to ask for what he wants. It is unclear whether he is making progress with Jane or Carolyn, but he is certainly making progress with himself. Interestingly, in attempting to reclaim his identity, Lester must first recapture his masculinity, reclaiming at least part of his traditional gender role. As he regains control of his life, he also seems prone to stereotyping those around him: Carolyn as a bad mother, and Jane as a disrespectful child.

Carolyn, however, is no female stereotype. Indeed, her problems are fairly distinct from her identity as a woman. She tells Jane that you cannot count on anyone but yourself, but then slaps her when Jane responds that Carolyn can't count on her, and that Jane already knows that she can't count on Carolyn. Jane also defies stereotype, particularly when she - a decidedly timid girl - removes her clothing for Ricky. Jane is explicitly showing Ricky that she, unlike her mother, believes that there are people in the world who you can count on. The gesture is all the more poignant because of Jane's extreme vulnerability about her appearance.

This scene contains some of the most visually arresting camera work in the film. As Jane takes off her clothes, the audience sees her through the window, and also on the screen behind Ricky. This double-view offers several layers of insight. First of all, it allows the reader to see Jane's actions and Ricky's reactions at the same time. Second of all, it emphasizes the feeling of inevitability that pervades the film. Once an action has been committed, it cannot be taken back. It has been immortalized on film and in the memories of those who witnessed it. When Jane objects to Ricky taping her as she speaks to him, she objects not to his taping her per se, but rather to the fact that she can see herself on the monitor. Ricky doesn't mind, because as a filmmaker he understands that we are observed all of the time, whether we know it or not. At the same time, he understands that there is a difference between an idea that is expressed and an idea that is acted upon. Just because he tapes Jane saying that she wants him to kill her father, that doesn't mean that she actually wants him to kill Lester, or even that she hates him. Saying something aloud doesn't necessarily make it true.

When Ricky's father comes into the room, he disrupts Ricky and Jane in their first erotic exchange. The camera is knocked out of Ricky's hand, and he loses control of the narrative. When his father is there, Ricky is not the dispassionate, wise observer. In this interaction, Ricky is more truthful with his father than usual. He tells him about Jane, and about showing her the Nazi plate. While this honesty certainly seems effective, Ricky doesn't appear to impart the information solely to get the Colonel to stop hitting him. One might imagine how happy he is to be able to tell the truth for once; this time, at least, the truth is innocent. When Ricky says to his father, "don't give up on me, sir," he continues to feed his father what he wants to hear. At the same time, however, Ricky almost seems to be saying, "I won't give up on you," thereby conveying to his father that no matter what he does, Ricky will never stop loving him. It is this, in fact, that stops the Colonel in his tracks: he realizes what his son is truly saying to him, and is struck by at least a flicker of guilt.

The contrast between the scene in Ricky's room and the next scene, which depicts Carolyn at the shooting range, is striking. Mendes revels in the contrast between the film's darker and lighter elements, walking the thin line between the disturbing and the humorous. Carolyn's violence is harmless while the Colonel's is not, but the two characters are connected by the release they get from having power over others. The ensuing scene between Lester and Carolyn carefully treads the line between amusing and devastating. Mendes treats Carolyn's refusal of Lester's advances lightly, but her rejection of him is truly one of the most tragic moments in the film. Carolyn chooses her couch over her husband, and in doing so puts their relationship at the point of no return.