American Beauty

American Beauty Summary and Analysis of Scene 9 ("I Love Root Beer") through Scene 12 ("I Want to Look Good Naked")


Jane and Angela are watching television when they hear Jane's parents return. Jane tries to go upstairs without being spotted, but Angela insists on saying hi to Jane's dad. Lester is getting something out of the fridge when Angela surprises him in the kitchen and starts to flirt with him. She reaches out as if to take a root beer, and Lester watches her arm move towards him. The movement slows down, becoming dreamlike, and repeats several times. Finally, when Angela touches his shoulder, Lester takes her face in his hands and kisses her. They kiss passionately for a moment, until Lester draws back. He takes a red rose petal out of his mouth, and the camera pulls back, revealing Angela and Jane standing across the room, Angela drinking a root beer from the bottle. Carolyn comes in, clearly drunk. Jane tells her mom that Angela is going to spend the night, and Lester, taken by surprise, spits his soda into the sink. The women all stare at him as though he has gone mad.

Upstairs, Jane and Angela are talking in Jane's room while Lester listens at the door. Jane apologizes for her dad's behavior, but Angela comments that he's cute, and that he would "be hot" if he worked out. She also calls Carolyn a "phony." Angela starts taunting Jane with the idea of having sex with her dad, and Jane covers her ears and sings to shut her out. Suddenly, Angela hears a noise and stops. Lester, thinking that the girls have heard him at the door, bolts down the hallway. However, it seems that Jane and Angela have heard something from outside the window. The girls realize that someone is throwing sticks at the window, and when they go to look they see that Jane's name is spelled out on the lawn in flames. Angela insists that it must have been Ricky, and starts declaring that Ricky is obsessed with Jane. Jane comments that he's probably filming them, and Angela starts to pose in front of the window. The shot pulls back to show Ricky's point-of-view as he films the girls. Angela blows kisses at him and poses provocatively, but he ignores her and zooms in on the reflection of Jane's face in a small mirror. She is smiling.

Ricky stands alone in the dark in his room. He lowers the camera, looking pleased. He hears a noise, and looks down into the Burnhams' garage. Lester is searching for something on the shelves: a pair of hand weights. He begins to do arm curls, pacing back and forth in the garage. Within moments, Lester notices his reflection in the window and turns to face it. He takes off his shirt, his pants, and his underwear and stands naked in front of the window. He looks at his stomach for a second, and then picks up the weights and begins the arm curls once more, this time with a decidedly determined air about him. Ricky, who is still filming, says to himself, "welcome to America's weirdest home videos." He zooms in on Lester's face. The spell is broken when Ricky's father knocks on the locked door. When Ricky goes to let him in, the camera reveals shelves full of labeled black cassette tapes and an impressive-looking television. Ricky apologizes to his father for having locked the door. Ricky's father asks him for a urine sample, and Ricky asks if he can give it to him in the morning, since he has just urinated. The Colonel starts to tell him something, then stops and simply says goodnight. After his father leaves, Ricky goes to a small fridge, takes out a urine sample, and places it on top of the fridge to warm up.

Lester is lying in bed, still awake. He gets up and walks out of the bedroom. He opens a door to a room filled with steam. Inside the room, Lester sees Angela reclining in a large bathtub. She says she's been waiting for him, and when he walks closer he sees that the bathtub is filled with rose petals. Angela asks Lester if he's been working out, and she tells him that she needs a bath, because she's very dirty. Lester starts to reach into the tub, slowly, slowly...and then suddenly the scene reverts to the Burnhams' bedroom, where Lester is lying in bed, masturbating. Carolyn wakes up and accuses him of masturbating. He denies it at first, but then angrily starts listing euphemisms for masturbation. Carolyn tells him that he's disgusting, but he shoots back, "at least I still have blood pumping though my veins." Carolyn gets out of bed, turns on the light, and shouts at him. Lester tells her that since she's not going to help him out, he's going to masturbate when he feels like it. She says she's "sexually frustrated" too, and he suggests they have sex right then and there. She threatens to divorce him, and he asks her on what grounds. He then suggests that if they did get divorced, it is her who would have to pay him alimony. Having thus silenced Carolyn, Lester rolls over and smiles.

The next shot is a repeat of the shot seen at the beginning of the film: the camera zooms high over the neighborhood while Lester narrates in voice-over. He talks about surprising himself, and we zoom in to find Lester joining the two Jims on their daily run. They ask him why he's working out, and he tells them that he "want[s] to look good naked." As they approach Ricky's house, Colonel Fitts comments that it's like the "gay pride parade." An extremely sweaty Lester stops to say hi to Ricky and introduces himself to the Colonel. When the Colonel introduces himself using his full title Lester jokingly salutes, then turns to Ricky and asks him about the "film" they were discussing. Ricky tells him to come upstairs and he'll get it for him.

In Ricky's room, Lester asks about the urine, and Ricky explains that he has to take a drug test every six months, and that he gets clean urine from one of his clients - a nurse in a pediatrician's office. Ricky removes his supply from its hiding place in a drawer while Lester looks at his music collection. Ricky offers him a large bag of pot for three hundred dollars, but also shows him a much smaller bag of something called "G-13", which he says is genetically modified by the U.S. government and is the only thing he ever smokes. Lester reaches for the smaller bag, but is startled when Ricky tells him that it's two thousand dollars. Lester decides to take it anyway, but tells Ricky he'll have to pay him later. Ricky tells him that he's good for it, and that there's a card in the bag with his beeper number. Lester says that when he was Ricky's age, he flipped burgers to save enough money to buy an eight-track: it was, he recalls, pretty great - all he did was "party and get laid." Ricky tells him that his father thinks he pays for all of his expensive equipment with catering jobs.

Carolyn, humming, goes into the front yard to pick some roses. She stops and starts to sniff the air. She looks in the garage: Pink Floyd is playing, and Lester is lying on a weight bench smoking a joint and doing bench presses. Carolyn sarcastically says how wonderful it is that he's smoking pot now, to which Lester calmly responds that Carolyn is a "bloodless, moneygrubbing freak." Standing over him, Carolyn continues to berate him, but Lester calmly tells her to either spot him or leave.


Throughout the greater part of the film, Angela attempts to control the narrative of her and Jane's friendship so that the focus remains on her. She generally achieves this by talking about sex, because she supposedly has far more experience in this arena than Jane does. In this part of the movie, Angela begins using Jane's father as a tool with which to railroad the conversation. However, Angela is unable to control this narrative as she has controlled past interactions because Ricky refuses to allow her to direct the flow of conversation: when he is around, the focus is on Jane. While Ricky's displays of affection may appear to mock the stereotype of the obsessive teenager who has no idea how to appropriately communicate his feelings about a girl, his gestures are nevertheless genuinely moving precisely because they are so overblown. They dramatically call attention to Jane, and draw the focus away from Angela (a naturally more dramatic personality). Angela literally comments that something is "wrong" with Ricky because he doesn't seem interested in her.

The conflict between Jane and Angela speaks to one possible interpretation of the film's title. While the assumption may be that American Beauty is a reference to Angela Hayes, the stereotypical ideal of a beautiful America girl, it is possible that Ball intended the true "beauty" to be Jane. Jane struggles to define herself within the narrow parameters of conventional beauty, but it is clear that Ricky, at least, views Jane as far more attractive - both inside and out - than her more typically fetching friend. American Beauty suggests a wider definition of beauty: a paper bag blowing in the wind is just as beautiful - if not more so - than a traditional work of art.

Two distinct worldviews are present in this narrative: Jane's, and Angela's. Lester continues to support Angela's perspective (that she is an intensely desirable woman), while Ricky strives to help Jane develop a stronger sense of self. Lester is focused wholly on the burgeoning "relationship" between himself and Angela. For example, when Lester hears Angela stop laughing because she has heard a noise, he assumes that it is him she has heard. He is following the narrative of a potential relationship between himself and Angela, and fails to consider the possibility that the noise might have nothing to do with him. This misplaced focus causes him to overlook Jane's narrative - ostensibly the narrative that he should be following, as Jane is his daughter while Angela has no real place in his life as of yet. Lester's frantic dash down the stairs is one of the best moments of physical comedy in the film. Lester's obtuseness is underscored by his surprise when he learns that Ricky knows Jane, even though a moment's consideration might have led him to realize that Ricky most likely attends the same school as his daughter. Once again, Lester's self-interest leads him to see Ricky only as he relates to himself, rather than as someone with his own personal interests and relationships.

Lester's self-obsession has both positive and negative ramifications for his personal development. Only by focusing on himself is he able to break free from his tendency to behave in accordance with how others see him. He begins to recognize his worth as something disconnected from his job or his car or the way his wife thinks of him. At the same time, however, this self-obsession leads to inappropriate behavior: fantasies about fifteen-year-old girls, pot-smoking, and naked weightlifting in his garage, to name a few. Although it might seem that American Beauty is endorsing Lester's decision to focus wholly on himself, the issue is far more complex: ultimately, Lester must learn that the beauty in life is in living in the best possible way, in balancing self-love with love for others.

Ricky is perhaps the best example of a character that achieves this balance. Ricky possesses many of the traits Lester strives for - he is, after all, Lester's "personal hero" - but his freedom and confidence do not come from his focus on himself, but rather from his amazing awareness of the world around him. Ricky even notices Jane, who strives so hard not to be noticed. He sees Lester sitting at the bar and is instantly aware that he is looking at a man in pain. Lester is completely oblivious to Ricky's problems, while Ricky has room - even in his unquestionably difficult situation - to take on the burdens of others. At the same time, Ricky is not idealized as a figure of moral or spiritual perfection. Ricky's freedom is not limitless: he purchases it with deception, though he is perfectly straightforward about his lifestyle outside of the limited circle of his immediate family. In fact, his deception is so transparent to anyone besides his loopy mother and embittered father that it becomes more of a device than a reality. He can practice deceptiveness unevenly, keeping drugs hidden in drawers but storing urine samples in an open refrigerator, precisely because his family only sees what they want to see.

As Lester slowly takes steps towards assuming responsibility for his own life, he retains his honesty, no matter how troublesome this honesty may be to others. He and Carolyn begin to fight more and more violently, but at the same time, his newfound straightforwardness raises the possibility of an emotional reunion. Lester tries to confront Carolyn with the truth about herself, but she is unwilling to acknowledge that he might be right. Lester is protected from Carolyn's anger not because he is doing nothing wrong, but because he is being completely honest with himself about his actions.