American Beauty (1999) dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari
By Alan Bacchus
How well does American Beauty stand up today? Remember back then when this multi-Oscar winner, TIFF audience award winner was shit hot? Sam Mendes was shit hot. Same with Kevin Spacey. As Spacey’s career declined (or at least diverged away from film, and more towards theatre) and Mendes career declined, not to mention Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, so it seemed did the reputation of film. Now there seems to a large base of American Beauty haters out there. What gives?
Back in 1999, the film seemed to speak to a new generation of youth. Alan Ball’s brilliant script which told the story of several suburbanites searching for the meaning in their lives, meaning which came from different places for each of its characters.
Perhaps the source of the new hatred for this film comes from the fact that many of the characters, scenes, motifs, themes etc so quickly became part of pop culture lexicon - over exposure, if you will. The satirization of suburbia for instance was nothing new, but under Mendes/Ball’s skewed microscope we saw something new about ourselves we hadn’t seen before. Now, there are innumerable films and TV shows about the subject – arguably more on TV than Film (ie. Ball's own Six Feet Under, Weeds, The United States of Tara to name a few).
What American Beauty still manages to do brilliantly, even from today's cynical eyes, is manage the black comedy with melodramatic tragedy, both in healthy portions.
Wes Bentley’s iconoclastic performance still holds up. His eyes are still mesmerizing even if his character has now become a cliche. Though not a traditional ensemble film Mendes and Ball manage to make almost every supporting role unique, memorable and anything but stock characters. Think about the gay neighbours, both named Jim. These guys can now be considered the stock gay characters, but back in 1999, their characterization by Sam Robards and Scott Bakula were ahead of the curve and funny. It also disarms us to the reveal of Chris Cooper’s character’s homosexuality, which is not treated as a whimsical gay stereotype, but dark self-loathing.
Mena Suvari and Thora Birch can be considered ahead of the curve in terms of complex high school satirical characters. Kevin Spacey, unfortunately, doesn't. He didn’t seem to broaden his acting skills on film since Beauty and looking back his performance, despite the Oscar victory, it feels the most on the nose. His transition from meek ner-do-well to confident uber-mench is telegraphed without much subtly.
The dreamy existential tone works in moments. Jane’s lame pep rally cheerleading sequence is still funny on a number of levels – first the bored expression of Thora Birch exemplifies the role she feels she’s trying to fill as a teenager, and the reason why she becomes so taken with the mysterious neighbour. And Mendes' orchestration of Lester’s dream sequence, as edited by Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury and shot by Conrad Hall Jr., still looks magnificent.
I could use without the Sunset Boulevard narration which opens and closes the film. It doesn’t ring as profound anymore, dated and forced, if anything. But of course Ball was going for an homage to those noir films of yesteryear, like Boulevard or Double Indemnity. Maybe ten years from now, it’ll become relevant and trendy again. American Beauty is still a very good film.
American Beauty is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment