DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: American Beauty

Thursday 23 September 2010

American Beauty

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


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece AB. The AMERICAN BEAUTY haters out there (I'm looking at you Klymkiw) can't tell the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad. They only know that if something becomes popular, they don't identify with it as they have never been popular themselves. Fine. Makes sense. As a huge nerd for most of my life, I get it.

Objectively, American Beauty is a brilliant work and worthy of those 3.5 stars. Consider how difficult it is for a film that takes years to manufacture to be a contemporary phenomenon. I've heard the difficulty of making a movie "current" coined, "dancing between the raindrops". True isn't it?

How timeless is the dining room scene with the peas? How insightful and well portrayed is Chris Cooper's conflicted character? You don't have to be a film nerd to know the answer.

Tyler Levine

Greg Klymkiw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Klymkiw said...

Dearest Tyler: Since when have I not extolled the virtues of popular movies? My Top 30 Films of the past decade included titles such as:

Bruno (Larry Charles) *
Devil’s Rejects, The (Rob Zombie) *
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu) *
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog) *
Incredibles, The (Brad Bird) *
Lives of Others, The (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) *
Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster (Sinofsky/Berlinger) *
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch) *
Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Jonathan Demme) *
Passion of the Christ, The (Mel Gibson) *
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) *
Sin City (Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez) *
Spider-Man(Sam Raimi) *
Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi)
There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson) *
War Of The Worlds (Steven Spielberg) *
Wrestler, The (Darren Aronofsky) *

17 out of 30 were hits at the boxoffice either domestically and/or internationally and/or in ancillaries - many of them bonafide blockbusters.

I simply have no use for pap like American Beauty which is "darkness" for those who really don't like "darkness" but want to pretend they do. That said, I would never look down upon those who enjoy American Beauty since they need their "truth" sugar-coated - but as I've said before, the picture is a Lite Beer version of much better and more harrowing works like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, etc.

Oh yeah, I saw The Town and Easy A last night. Liked both of them bigtime. Last I checked the grosses, they were both plenty popular. I assume if I liked them, I also "identified" with them.

Alan Bacchus said...

Tyler, thanks for the support and the fun jab and Klym,. I also have trouble believing you were ever a nerd.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Oh, and all that said, it's a fine review, also. I can appreciate a well written review that extols the virtues of a movie I hate and vice-versa. Can you, Monsieur Levine?

Greg Klymkiw said...

Yes, Alan. A geek - to this day. A nerd? Never. You are most correct in your assumption. I'm one of those people who annoyingly sailed through public school, university and life being insanely popular.

Free Movies Online said...

I don't know anyone who didn't like this film. Maybe looking back at it now I would change a few things but at the time it was great.