DreamWorks // 1999 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // September 25th, 2000
American Beauty. 1999 Academy Awards. Nominated eight times. Winner of five. Best Picture. Best Actor. Best Director. Best Screenplay. Best Cinematography. Also swept the British version of the Oscars, the Bafta awards. Not to mention a slew of others. Visit the Awards listing at IMDb if you don't believe me.
Sometimes, not too often, a film sort of resonates through the population. Usually, when one does, it is well deserved. This was just such an occasion. American Beauty beautifully combines parody, black comedy, drama, melodrama, suburban angst and great acting, direction, writing and cinematography to transcend the sum of its parts. Will it remain a large part of our filmic vocabulary 25 years from now? I think so.
Kevin Spacey (L.A. Confidential, Se7en, The Usual Suspects) plays Lester Burnham, a man totally devoid of worth, or so it would seem. Lester has decided to make some changes in his life, after enduring too many years of marriage to his obsessive-compulsive, adulterating wife Carolyn played by Annette Bening (The Grifters, Bugsy). We are treated to expository scenes, which set forth Lester's lack of worth as a husband, as a father and as an employee. Lester finds himself coasting through life, unable to speak his mind or actually FEEL much of anything. Through a bizarre encounter or two, Lester decides he's not going to take it anymore (apologies to Network) and goes about making some changes in his life.
Meanwhile, Lester's daughter Jane, played wistfully by Thora Birch (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), has come to the conclusion that her parents are embarrassing idiots (she's right). Jane falls in with the interesting character next door Ricky Fitts who has just moved in. It seems Ricky is a drug peddler who keeps his retired USMC Colonel brutal father off his back by masquerading as a decent citizen. Jane also has a friend at school named Angela, who becomes the focus of Lester's newfound fantasy life.
As the lives of these misfits intertwine we are sure something bad will happen -- because we are told at the beginning of the story that Lester will die within a year. We are pretty sure it will happen at the hands of one or more of these despicable people, but we are not sure which. All these elements create the backdrop against which the real story takes place. In the end we wind up rooting for Lester, despite his faults -- in some ways because of them. Sure, he is a bit of a letch, but he begins to finally awaken from his long suburban sleep and take control of his life. Are those choices responsible? Not necessarily. But, they are HIS. And that makes all the difference.
After nearly a year-long wait, DreamWorks is sending American Beauty to its rightful place -- DVD -- and in a special edition! The movie itself is the prize here, despite the extra features included on the disc. Spacey earned a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of Lester Burnham. Spacey absolutely inhabits Lester and creates one of the more memorable characters to grace the screen in a long time. Lester's angst is conveyed completely. We FEEL for and with him, as his journey enlightens him as an individual. And Annette Bening is wonderful as Carolyn, the wife so obsessed with success who continues to fall short of her goals. But the big surprise has to be Wes Bentley's portrayal of Ricky. Bentley imbues Ricky with a quietude that makes him the consummate observer. Yet, the biggest juxtaposition of that quietness is Ricky's status in the film as the only DOER that is so disquieting. Every other character simply goes through the motions of life, completely unhappy with their choices and/or status. Sure Ricky leads a double life in order to do what he wants, but at least he is doing SOMETHING.
Director Sam Mendes has created a wonderful world for his characters to inhabit. But it is only through his close working relationship with cinematographer Conrad Hall (Searching for Bobby Fischer, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) that this world could exist. Mendes storyboarded much of the film before production began, but those ideas were constantly being improved upon by the work of Hall. The lighting cues and subtle framing choices these two made as a team were terrific, and the extras on the disc focus on their teamwork and method behind their choices (perhaps to a fault -- but more on that later).
The video on this disc is wonderful. It is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 TVs. The original production utilized subtly muted colors in order to enhance the imagery of the color red throughout the picture. These choices are brought perfectly into the home arena by the team that worked on this disc. Black level is solid and I could detect no bleeding whatsoever. The print used was obviously pristine, without so much as a scratch or nick visible. Really, a top notch transfer.
Audio is available in many choices. The most obvious two choices are 5.1 versions of DTS or Dolby Digital. Originally, I went through the disc with the DTS chosen and everything sounded just fine. Vocals were well localized and the dynamic range was pretty solid. Thomas Newman's score lends a lot to the film and it was beautifully presented. I then went back and watched the film a second time with the Dolby Digital engaged and could tell only a slight difference in the dynamic range. The rear channels seemed a bit hotter in the DTS version, but the vocals sounded just a tinge thinner to me in Dolby Digital mode. In any event, we are big fans of choice here at the Verdict, and the inclusion of both tracks was nice to see on this disc. Also present is an English version in Dolby Surround, which I did not test. The disc includes English captions which is always nice to see.
Being a special edition (actually labeled "The Awards Edition") American Beauty includes some pretty nice extras. First up (because it is my favorite extra in the generic sense) is the commentary track with Director Same Mendes and Writer Alan Ball. The track focuses very heavily on the techniques used and the sense Mendes was trying to convey during certain shots. Ball was largely silent during most of the track, uttering the occasional "that was great" or "uh, huh" throughout. Certainly not the best track in all the land, but hardly the worst. Mendes' love of the material comes across cleanly, and that is quite refreshing.
The disc also includes the standard talent bios, two theatrical trailers, production notes and a pretty well done featurette called "American Beauty: Look Closer..." Not quite your typical fluff piece, the featurette will give some insights into the behind the scenes work that went into the making of the film. But the best and mosty innovative extra on this disc has to be the storyboard comparison with Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall. This feature compares side by side three slides from the storyboarding process with three screen captures from the DVD with the two principals explaining some of their choices and thought processes. And it is FASCINATING! More of another produced featurette than a simple feature, the presentation is self-running and about ONE HOUR LONG! Good God! About halfway through,. I assumed they were going to go through the entire story, which would have been even better. I got the feeling they would have liked to go through the entire process, and maybe the even did. It is entirely possible this feature was cut for length due to space considerations on the disc itself. A very well done extra, and something that many other studios MUST begin to emulate -- IMMEDIATELY.
This being a DreamWorks disc, we get all the benefit of their close working relationship with Universal Home Video. The disc comes enclosed in an Amaray Keep Case, adorned with the traditional Universal information grid on the back cover, where everything is laid out nicely for those of us that can't read .5 pt Times New Roman. God, I love Universal!
The bad news is being Universal, the audio absolutely cannot be changed in the fly through the use of your handy "audio" button on your DVD players remote control. Instead, you must go through the disc's menus to change to DTS or Dolby Digital. You want to change to the commentary track? Back to the menu. Ughhhhhhhh! God, I hate Universal!
American Beauty didn't win five Academy Awards for nothing. This is a must own for any movie fan. Get your pre-orders in. Now. The only question is whether or not DreamWorks' delay to market will hurt sales in the same way Titanic was crushed nearly a year ago by Paramount's delay. Only time will tell.
American Beauty is acquitted of all charges, as are all the principals involved.
Review content copyright © 2000 Sean McGinnis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* American Beauty: Look Closer..
* Commentary track with Director Sam Mendes and Writer Alan Ball
* Storyboard Presentation with Director Sam Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad L. Hall
* DVD-ROM Screenplay with Storyboards and Film Footage
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* Two Theatrical Trailers
* Production Notes
* Spaceyland - the Kevin Spacey Fan Site