American Beauty Review
After Miramax's Shakespeare In Love shocked everybody by snatching the Best Picture Oscar away from Dreamworks' Saving Private Ryan, Dreamworks inflicted revenge a year later with the critically acclaimed American Beauty. The cold, black comedy slice of American middle-class suburbia won the Best Picture Oscar, and launched the cinema career of talented British theatre director Sam Mendes.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is having the worst type of mid-life crisis - He hates his mundane job, he has lost the connection between himself and his trophy wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) no longer seeks his parental guidance for any reason. Lester's life is stuck in a rut, fuelled with the middle class routine of worrying that today might be the day he finally is laid-off at work, and tolerating his shallow wife who only seems to be image driven. Carolyn is constantly obsessing about her real estate business and worrying how she appears to her competitors. Change is brought about, however, by new neighbours moving to Lester's street - The Fitts family, consisting of the militant father Colonel Frank (Chris Cooper), ego-shattered mother Barbara (Allison Janney) and kooky video-camera obsessed teenage son Ricky (Wes Bentley). Soon, Ricky takes to filming Jane at any given opportunity, and also sparks a bond with Lester, through the channel of reintroducing Lester to the joys of pot. Quickly, Lester takes a new grip of his life, starts working out, and takes a rather fond attraction to Jane's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), a girl who superficially rubs Jane's nose in her own sexual promiscuity.
There are three elements of American Beauty that are world class: Firstly, the performance by Kevin Spacey is light years ahead of the competition. Spacey embodies every look, every action of Lester Burnham, and generates immense sympathy and likeability through his stares, his frowns, his smiles and his posture. The film works, because we the audience instantly identify with Lester, and care about him as a character. Not only does Spacey carry the film on his shoulders, but he also turns in the greatest performance of his career so far (and if you thought that was in The Usual Suspects then think again). The second world class element of American Beauty is the directing by Sam Mendes. Mendes sparks a delicate balance between underplaying and overplaying every scene, and he clearly has cleverly thought out every single shot. Notice for instance, the sequence in which Lester is peering at Carolyn talking to Jim the neighbour (Scott Bakula), or the sequence in which he drops the contents of his briefcase - Lester is framed by the camera in a way so that he is totally devoid of any presence. He is like a weak, cowardly shadow of himself, lurking in the corners. Mendes clearly shows that he knows how to manipulate the mise-en-scene of a film in order to support his narrative, and he fully deserved that year's Director Oscar. Although American Beauty is on the surface a 'slice-of-life' tale of a typical American suburban family, various other themes can be drawn from it, and the framing of the chosen film clearly supports these other themes. Veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall's cinematography of American Beauty is masterful without being obvious, and his inspired collaboration with newcomer Sam Mendes is a heavenly partnership. Notice how the notion of superficiality is omnipresent in the film, and how everything contained within the film is only portrayed on a surface level, encouraging the audience and even the characters themselves to 'look closer' (which ironically is the tagline of the film). Also, the notions of isolation and social imprisonment are expressed in the film, and the framing of the film heavily supports this. For example, in the film's opening, Lester is almost 'confined' to the large shower he is in, and the blurred glass prevents us from seeing his true self, as if representing Lester being shut away in a cell. Also, the text on the computer screen at work is arranged in a way to represent bars, and this symbolic image is carried further by Lester's reflection on the screen seemingly being behind these bars. Conrad Hall's lighting techniques successfully give the film vibrant colour without being too overbearing, and yet the film still manages to feel icy cold for the most part.
American Beauty shows two families close to cracking, and handles the plot events so deftly yet so assuredly you'd be forgiven for awarding the film full marks. It certainly is a classic, and possibly one of the best films of the last twenty years, but the film is essentially a very good script directed by a world class talent. If the Burnham family is under such strain, why are we not given enough explanation as to why Carolyn is dissatisfied? We are given the full insight into why Lester is unhappy with his life, and this is obvious because Lester neglects to hide his feelings. Carolyn is the opposite; she is as equally unhappy with her life as Lester, but she chooses to maintain a happy exterior. Alan Ball's Oscar winning script is very good (but certainly not better than Charlie Kaufmann's Being John Malkovich which it beat to the Oscar) yet fails to establish the heart of Carolyn's pain to the same level as Lester's, and almost deploys her as the scapegoat of the movie, which she certainly shouldn't be. Ultimately, this is a shame, as American Beauty was nearly one of the greatest movies ever made, but ends up falling just short.
That said, American Beauty is tremendous filmmaking, and fully deserves everyone's attention. It has a knockout all-star cast, and the production team all deliver excellent efforts. The director Sam Mendes clearly is one to watch (although how can he top this?), and if you don't relate to this film at all, don't worry, you will someday.
Academy Awards 1999
Best Director - Sam Mendes
Best Actor - Kevin Spacey
Best Original Screenplay - Alan Ball
Best Cinematography - Conrad L. Hall
Academy Award Nominations 1999
Best Actress - Annette Bening
Best Film Editing - Tariq Anwar
Best Original Score - Thomas Newman
Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, the picture is generally pleasing and overall better than the Region 1 version. It's hard to put your finger on it, but the picture isn't perfect, but not for any obvious reason. That doesn't mean it's terrible, because it is in fact very good, it just feels lacking some sort of visual polish somewhere.
Presented in a 5.1 surround mix, the sound track is extremely abundant with clarity and the dialogue, effects and songs that form it are given enormous breadth to exist independently on the overall mix. Unfortunately for the Region 2 consumers, the Regions 1's DTS mix is sadly omitted, but for a film relatively free of action and loud explosions it is safe to turn a blind eye to this.
Menu: For a film of this quality, the menu is uninspired, with static pages with promo shots filling the background, and this is all unacceptable considering the Region 1 had briefly moving menus. Dreamworks employed the same policy with Amistad, giving Region 2 consumers the raw deal as well.
Packaging: An amaray packaging with slightly different cover and back artwork compared to the Region 1 version. It maintains the usual Dreamworks template, and at least retains the famous poster artwork for the film on the front.
Audio Commentary With Sam Mendes and Alan Ball: This is an excellent and informative commentary, as Mendes never holds back in explaining the homages he pays and the reasoning behind every touch he adds to the film, and he also is quite revealing in explaining scenes he subsequently cut (so why are they not included as deleted scenes then? Apparently Mendes didn't want to spoil the 'mystique' of the film by including them, so why talk about them?) As a fellow contributor to the commentary, screenwriter Alan Ball rarely bothers to talk, and seems content to sit back and let Mendes stand in the limelight. This doesn't matter, as Mendes delivers the goods and shows a tremendous amount of enthusiasm.
Storyboard Presentation With Sam Mendes and Conrad Hall: This is an extensive feature, and lasts just over an hour. Essentially, it's a comparison between the storyboards conceived for the film and the final filmed sequences. The storyboards take up the left half of the screen, with three on each page, and on the opposite half of the screen is still images from the film to remind you of how the two contrast with each other. Director Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall discuss proceedings at length, and Mendes clearly pays Hall with much respect when he converses with him.
'American Beauty: Look Closer' - Behind The Scenes Featurette: A twenty-two minute featurette promoting the film and featuring the usual interviews and clips of the film. This is quite enjoyable and it surprisingly contains much evidence of the film's critical acclaim, although surely a film this good deserves an hour or so documentary instead?
Theatrical Trailers: Two theatrical trailers with both employing different techniques to promote the film. Both make the film seem enjoyable, although the first trailer is better.
American Beauty is a fantastic film and has been provided with a good set of technical qualities and some nice extras. The overall package isn't as extensive as it could have been (it lacks deleted scenes that do exist and the DVD-ROM screenplay from the Region 1 version), but it definitely is a worthy purchase, and will benefit most collections.