Rarely does a film have such am impact upon the audience that it not only becomes part of movie history, it transcends into a creator of a new standard for films. To do this, a movie has to push the envelope of writing, direction, cast and crew.
It has been a very long time since such a film has been seen. American Beauty redefines the standard for American cinema. Like Death of a Salesman a generation ago, American beauty looks at the disintegration of a typical workingman.
Lester (Kevin Spacey) may have started out embracing his life but now he drifts along like so much flotsam. Love has left his life.
His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) tries her best to project the appearance of happiness and perfection that she has let the most important thing in life, family, degenerate into a mere charade. While she color coordinates her gardening shears to her outfit, while she is so busy being the perfect real estate agent, she ceases to be a wife and mother in all but the most superficial ways.
The daughter caught in the middle of this battle of apathy is Jane (Thora Birch). Jane faces not only the usual turbulence of the teen years; she also must face the unbearable chill of her parents at home.
After a performance with the cheerleaders at a big game her mother’s compliment was ‘You didn’t screw up once’. As her mother is providing such warmth her father is drooling over Jane’s best friend Angela (Mena Suvari).
Angela is sexually precocious. She is always telling Jane every lurid detail of her sex life. Ironically, her surname is Haze, the same last name used in the notorious novel ‘Lolita’.
Moving in next door is another completely dysfunctional family. Ricky (Wes Bently) is a major drug dealer. His father is a retired marine Colonel and his mother is just shy of being completely catatonic.
Ricky’s hobby is videotaping. He has a tape of a plastic bag blowing around a street for 15 minutes, dead birds, and, a lot of tapes of Jane when she wasn’t looking. All in all, this neighborhood seems to advertise in ‘Dysfunctional Family Circle’ for members.
What makes this a great movie is how difficult it is to even sum up the story. It is so rich in details that it is like a tapestry where every single thread is vital to the overall work. American Beauty is a movie that demands to be viewed time and time again.
The acting here is sheer perfection. Not one character from the leads on down to the extras is anything less than the embodiment of the role they play.
Spacey once again shows that there is not a role around that he cannot play to the hilt. He makes Lester a real person, flawed, tragic but completely understandable. He reflects in Lester the fears and doubts we all have had.
The simple way to play this would have been a man lusting after a teenage girl or a man who lost his job. Spacey did not take the easy way out. His portrayal of Lester is multidimensional. Lester has lost the ability to appreciate the details in life, the discovery of youth and he desperately needs this back. This is the best role and performance Spacey has had since Usual Suspects.
Bening brings to Carolyn perfection as a flaw. The harder she tries to better herself the less human she seems to become. She practically chants phrases from a self-help tape as if it was a mantra. If not for the powerful performance given by Hillary Swank Bening would have been a shoe in for the Best Actress Oscar.
Birch is best known for her child roles. Here she demonstrates that her career has just begun. She makes Jane into the one truly sympathetic character in the whole film. That is until the very end where Mena Suvari’s character makes a surprising turn. These young women are destined to become the great actresses of the new millennium.
The director of American Beauty is Sam Mendes. It is extremely rare for a director’s freshman effort to be so polished, so powerful and so extremely well crafted. Best known for his stage direction Mendes brings a rare talent to the screen.
Each scene is expertly done, perfectly blending lighting, cinematography, design and direction. There is not a single scene that is wasted or that does not add immensely to propelling the story line.
The writer, Alan Ball, is also a freshman in this field. American Beauty represents the first screenplay he has done. I sincerely hope that this pair teams up again. If American Beauty is the first time for both I can not imaging what a little experience will bring.
Mendes has a great eye for framing a scene. This is especially true in American Beauty. Take a look at the when Mendes frames the dinning room scenes in the Burnham household. Lester at the foot of the table, his wife Carolyn at the head, and Jane stuck in the middle. Watch the reactions of each character as another speaks, incredible, pure perfection.
Another get setup is in the Fitts home while watching TV, Again the polarization of the family is made visible as they set on the couch watching TV, never touching, each in their own space. It is little touches like this that will make Mendes one of the great American directors of all time. Mendez uses the motif of the American Beauty rose to symbolize perfection in life.
Carolyn seeks this perfection through her garden and the beauty of her flowers, as if this could make up for the distance growing between herself and her family. Lester's fantasies about young Angela are all marked with petals from this flower seemingly representing his need for a perfection that is absent in his life.
Mendez is certainly a director that is concerned with the details. Notice as you watch American Beauty the many shots of family photographs depicting the lost happy times in the lives of this estranged family.
The American Beauty disc is excellent.
The video is super clear 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer.
The audio contains both Dolby 5.1 and DTS. Once again, subjectively, I felt the DTS provided better backfill in the rear. In the outdoor scenes the ambient sounds are subtle but really add to the experience.
The extras include a commentary featuring the director, Sam Mendes and writer Allan Ball. Really excellent banter between them again shows that they seem to work very well with each other. There is also a group of storyboards and commentary to show how American Beauty look was produced.
American Beauty took a long time to come out but American Beauty was well worth the wait. Get American Beauty, watch American Beauty and enjoy American Beauty for many years to come.
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