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AMERICAN BEAUTY

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Peter Gallagher, Chris Cooper
Director: Sam Mendes
Audio: English DTS, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: DreamWorks Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: October 24, 2000

Film ****

American Beauty was released at a point when I was certain that 1999 was the absolute best year for movies in long, long time. Along with this movie, such other grand films like Three Kings, Fight Club, and Bringing out the Dead in the same month. I have never experienced so many terrific motion pictures in a single month, and I doubt I ever will again. American Beauty is a glowing American masterpiece of the unexpected. It’s a sharp, original, striking piece of film making that audiences and critics alike applauded all the way to the oscars, where it was the expected sweeper that night, including sweeping away the award for Best Picture of 1999.

What makes American Beauty the triumph that it is? Well, let’s first start with a stellar performance by one of the greatest actors working in films today, Kevin Spacey.  In every film he turns up in, you are guaranteed some great acting.  He as shined in such films as LA Confidential, The Negotiator, Hurlyburly, and Glengarry Glen Ross. In American Beauty, his characterization maybe his best yet, and I think that is quite an accomplishment because I thought his work in Confidential was tough to beat.  The characters he plays are always of sheer originality, and his role in American Beauty is no exception.

Spacey portrays Lester Burnham, a man whose life is going down tubes at maximum speed.  The character of Lester also provides as the story’s narrator. As the film opens, his voice-over informs us, “In less than a year, I’ll be dead, but in a way, I’m dead already.” That perfectly sums up the mid-life crisis he is experiencing.  His relationship with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is that of lost communication. They sit to slow, quiet dinners every night, backed up by Carolyn’s choice of Mantovanian music. Everyday, Lester fears the possibility of unemployment from the advertising agency he works for. To complicate his life even more, he becomes extremely attracted to his daughter’s best friend Angela, who’s only 17, while Lester is 42. Eventually, Lester frees himself from any responsibilities he had before. He quits his job, starts smoking pot, and works out in the garage everyday in hopes of attracting Angela. In short, Lester acknowledges that he’s already a failure in life, so why not have a little fun?  I love the family dinner scene where Lester immediately admits to his daughter, “I quit my job today, plus I blackmailed my boss for $60,000, pass the asparagus please.” Spacey is such a master of timing in his dialogue.

Carolyn, a real estate agent who’s frustrated by the marriage, begins having an affair with a competing agent (Peter Gallagher), of all people.  Their sexual encounters bring a certain joy out of her that non-existent with Lester.  She doesn’t take much interest in her daughter. In fact, the thing she concentrates most on in life is her job and how well she can perform in selling her product.

Jane is a young woman who is very sullen. She is saving all of her money for breast augmentation, being unhappy with her physical appearance. Jane is frustrated by Angela’s wicked obsession over Lester. In one scene, she outrageously confesses to Jane what she’d do to Lester if he got a good workout. The dialogue in this scene is sure to make your jaw drop to the floor. Jane attracts the attention of Ricky (Wes Bentley); her new next door neighbor. She catches him filming her with his camera at his home frequently. She doesn’t want to be an object of obsession, but Ricky claims, “I’m not obsessing, I’m just curious.”

Ricky is perhaps the second most unique character in the film. His beliefs and thoughts on life and beauty are all about what the film is all about. His family life isn’t too pretty either. His father (Chris Cooper) is an ex marine who so strict, he makes Ricky give a home urine test every six months to check for drug use. His mom is virtually drawn from life, occasionally sitting in an abandon dining room all by herself.  Soon, Ricky and Jane become very close, and they relate to each other so well. The reason is because they come from broken households, and they would clearly be better off by themselves somewhere distant. The relationship between Ricky and Jane is so complete and real, and the chemistry between Bentley and Birch is thoroughly remarkable. The scene where they’re alone, and he tells her his thoughts on what beauty is put a huge smile on my face, because it was such a beautiful moment.

The director of American Beauty is Sam Mendes, who has done previous work on Broadway. This is his feature film debut, and it’s a remarkable one at that. He and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall create some incredible camera work. A good example is the opening shot of the neighborhood where all the events take place. The score by Thomas Newman, who did a breathtaking score for The Shawshank Redemption, is truly perfect for the mood of the film. And full credit should be given to Alan Ball, who has written a thoroughly brilliant script.

The final moments of American Beauty will remain in my mind for a long time. A series of events concerning all of the main characters takes place in ways that you simply don’t expect. I felt involved during this point of the film like I had never felt in any other movie this year. Even though a twist is given away at the opening of the film, there are still plenty of turning events in the film’s closing scenes that will definitely surprise you. Having said that, it would be totally unfair to spoil anymore of what happens.

So in short, American Beauty is a film of pure beauty. It’s a terrific example of what a great movie should have: terrific acting, wonderful storytelling, and a very unique style and vision. American Beauty has all of that, and is the one of this year’s greatest films.

Video ***1/2

A quite exceptional visual treatment from DreamWorks, who have really come into their own in the DVD market, since they are partnered with Universal. The picture is mostly clear and crisp throughout the presentation, though at times it was hard for me to look for any flaw in scenes that used a lot darkness. However, scenes that use a lot of light and color come through with absolute, well, beauty. An all around pleasant visual viewing.

Audio ****

Although this is a film without a moment of action or special effects, DreamWorks’ audio quality on American Beauty is simply spectacular. The music comes through the speakers as clear as it is possible, and dialogue and every sound covered is easily detected in the 5.1 Digital presentation. For you DTS buffs, this disc includes a DTS track as well.

Features ***1/2

Nice use of extras here. Included is a featurette on the making of the movie, a storyboard to film comparison, a commentary from director Sam Mendes and director of photography Conrad L. Hall, two trailers, and some DVD-ROM material.

Summary:

American Beauty is a beautiful surprise of a movie. One of the absolute best character studies of recent memory. It’s a movie that should be seen by anyone with a taste for something different, and those who are desperate to look at things a little closer.