American Beauty is a story of American suburbia, showing how easily the happy faï¿½ade of American life washes off and how fatally flawed the American dream really is. At the beginning of the film, Lester seems happy in a fairly good job with a nice family; however, this is not true. Lester hates his job, although it is well paid, he has realized he no longer has any promotion opportunities in his current job, and he does not like the work he is doing. Indeed later in the film, he quits his job and blackmails his boss before getting a job in a fast-food restaurant. In this job, he is trying to go back to “the good old days” of his childhood, as it were, these repressed feelings of boredom with his life and the materialistic way in which his life is leading are awakened by his daughter 18-year-old best friend who he fantasizes about after seeing her cheerleading at his daughter’s school.
At the start of the film, Carolyn seems to be doing alright for herself working selling houses; however, we later see how she finds it extremely difficult to sell houses and how frustrated and depressed she becomes when she cannot sell a house, almost having a breakdown. In a way, Carolyn and Lester are in opposite positions, with Lester having a good job but finding it boring and too easy. On the other hand, Carolyn likes her job and wants to continue it but is unsuccessful. They also have a daughter Jane, a member of the cheerleading squad and has one of the most popular girls in the school as her friend. However, she really feels lonely and undervalued and hates the world; she thinks she hates her dad for his crush on her friend, which she obviously sees as sick.
In this scene, we see a formal family dinner. This is obviously a big family occasion because Jane seems worried about missing it. It is probably the only time the family comes together in one room during the week as each member goes out to work or school early in the morning and does not come home until the early evening. They are in a rush in the mornings and probably do not get breakfast or lunch together. We first view the scene in a long shot showing the whole room through the frame of the doorframe. The room looks the height of classy sophistication, with its simple but formal outlay. Lester and Carolyn are sitting together at opposite ends of the table. This is the first indication we get in this scene that there is something wrong as the characters are distancing themselves from each other, rather than being close as a husband and wife would be expected to be they are far apart, this could be an analogy for most parts of the film.
The dining room indicates the formality of the meal with its symmetry and traditional and formal, upper-class layout, its formal layout with sparkling silver cutlery and formal place settings. The table is neatly laid out with meticulously prepared food. The room is silent apart from the diegetic Laurence Wilkes 1950’s Jazz Music, which Carolyn has selected as their “Dinner Music” and could be a 19th century English mansion with the piano music and its overall design and layout. Carolyn matches this formal setting sipping wine in a smart, sophisticated-looking dress which she has obviously just changed into for dinner as it is immaculate; she has obviously gone to a lot of trouble and meticulously applied her makeup which looks perfect. She is sitting perfectly upright in her chair. Lester is the exact opposite of this, obviously having put no effort into looking smart for the meal dressed as he is in a T-shirt, casual checked shirt and casual trousers, he is also slouching in his seat and sipping beer directly from a bottle, obviously not the height of sophistication.
The argument between Carolyn and Lester starts when Jane enters the room; Jane is stuck in the middle throughout the argument, and when she tries to escape the uncomfortable situation forced on her by her parents by walking out of the room, her father shouts at her ordering her to sit back down. We see shot and reverse shot filming during the argument, following the argument and showing the other person’s reaction to what has just been said; we also see occasional long shots showing the reactions of all three characters. The conversation starts with Carolyn telling Jane that something happened at Lester’s work; Lester then tells Jane proudly of quitting his job and blackmailed his boss. Lester seems pleased with himself about this and does not seem to be upset or ashamed, as he says to Carolyn, “it isn’t as if I lost my job, it isn’t like oops where has it gone, I quit.” He clearly felt he deserted a sinking ship and felt much better for taking control of his life. However, Carolyn is not pleased about Lester’s decision as she sees it as a huge decision without her and has a hysterical outburst.
She obviously feels she is under increased pressure now and cannot continue even with her under even before this. Lester has now made her the main, even sole breadwinner for the family as she sees it. She feels indignation over this and resents it. She cannot believe that Lester would quit a good job to flip burgers at a fast-food restaurant; she cannot understand how bored he was in his job and his life, as he says, “do you expect me to go through life quietly doing as I’m told while you keep my dick under the sink in a basin jar”. The conversation then becomes aggressive in tone, and Lester’s language gets ruder and more explicit as he gets frustrated with nobody doing as he asks. We see two aggressive acts from Lester in this scene. In the first incident, he stands up and aggressively grabs the asparagus after nobody passing it to him.
This shows how the formal, quiet life breaks down as people politely asking for what they want do not get it but have to stand up and grab it; this is yet another analogy of the main theme of the film, as well as actually coming across as quite humorous as we see the reactions of Caroline and Jane who are afraid as they think he is going to hit them. Lester shows his violent side again when he gets interrupted by Carolyn. He throws the asparagus dish at the wall. This shows how bored and fed up he is with his wife’s desire for materialistic possessions as he smashes the expensive dish against the expensive print on the wall; he no longer cares about materialistic possessions but wants to live life.
After this, he is happier as he feels he has won the “fight,” He pushes the point further by declaring that he is going to alternate the dinner music, insulting Carolyn’s Taste in music. He then walks out; he is not going to clear up the mess he has caused; it was not his fault really, he just needed to press his point and did not like Carolyn hysterically interrupting him, it is like the slap in old films used to concentrate women and stop them being hysterical. The scene ends as it began with a long shot, this time showing a shocked Carolyn sitting alone at the table. We see this at the end, like it, as the whole film, shows how normal the family looks from the outside but how flawed it really is.