Paramount // 1999 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // September 21st, 2010
I saw American Beauty when it was first released because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Several years -- and several viewings -- later, I'm still trying to figure it out. I realize I'm probably in the minority here, but I just don't get how this smug, shallow film that targets such low-hanging perennials as the emptiness of the American Dream and the seedy underbelly of suburbia has been lauded as a modern classic. Will this new Blu-ray from Paramount's Sapphire Series turn my head, or have I already looked close enough?
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, The Shipping News) is fed up with his life. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, Bugsy), is an icy shrew, more concerned with the trappings of success -- she's a realtor with a middling business -- than with any kind of enjoyment of life, and his daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, Ghost World), is a snotty, though sensitive, teen who considers her dad an embarrassment. Lester's stuck in a dead-end job that he hates, but even that seems to be on its way out.
Lester's mid-life malaise is interrupted when he meets Angela (Mena Suvari, Factory Girl), Jane's sexy nymphet cheerleading buddy. Smitten, Lester decides to revisit the by-gone days of youth. He quits his job (after talking his way into a nice settlement package), begins working out, buys a cool car, and starts smoking pot supplied to him by new neighbor and yet another of Jane's classmates, Ricky (Wes Bentley, The Claim). Ricky's a nonconformist loner whom the other kids consider a freak, and he's saddled with terrible parents: bigoted military colonel father (Chris Cooper, Lone Star) and zomie-like mother (Allison Janney, Juno).
Ricky, who sees beauty in everyday things, takes a liking to Jane. But as their youthful romance buds, the marriage of Lester and Carolyn crumbles, and Lester's Humbert Humbert-esque obsession with Angela threatens to spill over. Of course, thanks to an ominous up-front voice over, we know that Lester's living on borrowed time -- and with all these bizarre and angry characters, don't expect him to check out via natural causes.
Let me tell you straight away, this review is rife with spoilers, so read at your own risk.
The tagline for American Beauty is "look closer." It's an unfortunate choice, because the closer you look at American Beauty, the more you see how phony and jerryrigged this film is.
While it boasts great cinematography by Conrad L. Hall, an effective Thomas Newman score, and some interesting performances, American Beauty is undone by a pretentious and precious script by Alan Ball and heavy-handed direction by Sam Mendes. That Ball and Mendes won a whole slew of awards for their work here -- including the one-time prestigious Oscar -- says more about the sorry state of cinema at the end of the 20th Century than it does about the quality of this film.
With Unsubtle standing in for Frank, and Punchlines replacing Insight, American Beauty is a series of scenes that serve as little more than set ups for things Ball (and Mendes, evidently) thought were funny or shocking or eye opening. It's as though the script were written backwards, and every time Ball needed a way to get to a point, he just threw something in, however unnatural or inelegant; thus we get a film rife with "Jack and Chrissie moments," those feeble misunderstandings, coincidences, and misconceptions that inexplicably powered Three's Company through seven banal seasons.
For instance, while it's a little questionable that Lester's sarcastic, artsy, disaffected teenage daughter would be a cheerleader, it's necessary to the script, because Ball and Mendes have to get Lester to a high school basketball game so he can see the fetching Angela done up in her fantasy regalia. Sure, he could have just met her when she was visiting their home, but that would have robbed Mendes of the opportunity to introduce the girl with a ridiculously bombastic multi-screen, slo-mo, rose-petal bursting wet dream sequence as seen through Lester's eyes -- no reason to trust your actors to convey thoughts and emotions or an audience to pick up on them when you can just go all J. Geils Band with the whole thing.
When Lester quits his job -- and gets a nice chunk of change from his company's benignly evil efficiency expert by threatening to expose what is presumably an open secret about the CEO -- he decides to have a teen do-over, ostensibly to recapture those good time feelings that middle age has sapped away, and perhaps score with the hot girl. He works out (check), adopts a snotty attitude (check), buys a cool car (clichéd, but check), and strangely, takes a job in a fast food restaurant. Now most people might agree that while it was fun to be footloose and 17 and working in the Burger Shack, it's not something they'd want to relive at 40. Are Ball and Mendes giving us some deeper insight into Lester by having him desperately wanting to revisit that part of his life at this part of his life? Nah, the whole point to him working in the Burger Shack is so that he can have a "funny" scene where he snags a pair of adulterers who inexplicably show up at the drive-thru for a post-coital snack.
The whole film is built on bad sitcom moments like this, including the final quarter, which kicks off with a completely unnecessary "I'll call you gesture" between two characters -- one of whom has a beeper, so why bother? -- which is only there so a third character can see the gesture and become suspicious. This leads to a well-worn sitcom moment, wherein the character peeks into Lester's window and thinks he sees him in a disturbing sex act -- only the sightline is obscured, so the character gets the wrong idea! (har-har) The only way to top that, of course, is the classic, "Two people having a conversation in which each is talking about a different thing, but neither realizes it." It was funny when they did it on The Honeymooners, not so much here, and since this whole misunderstanding ultimately leads to the tragic denouement we've been waiting for since the opening narration, it renders the finale as yet another punchline.
The characters rarely rise above the level of caricature, with the Fitts family the worst examples of contrived humanity this side of a Tyler Perry film. Mom is a glassy-eyed robot who's obviously had the life brow-beaten out of her by her evil husband. Colonel Fitts makes his first appearance by plunking himself down at the breakfast table and announcing, "This country is going straight to hell" -- because what else would a psychotic, bigoted, military guy say first thing in the morning? Although he never "suits up" or seems to have any sort of job, we're constantly reminded that he is "Colonel" Fitts, and of course, his military affiliation makes him a raving, abusive nutjob -- I mean, should we expect anything else from the military? The only things missing from this guy are a rhapsodic speech about his days in 'Nam and a few more intolerant epithets tossed around.
As for young Ricky, we're supposed to feel for his sensitive nature, but Ball's goopy writing just makes the kid insufferable. As played by Bentley, Ricky speaks in a quasi-mystical monotone and views the world with a penetrating, if empty, stare. Even though his evil, military dad has him randomly drug tested (Ricky cannily swaps urine samples on the old man), the kid is still a wildly successful dealer of high-end pot, with thousands of dollars of electronic equipment (Dad thinks he made the dough through cater-waiter jobs, ha-ha) and even more thousands stashed away in a false-bottom dresser drawer. Despite the evil, military lunatic ready to pound him into salt for the slightest transgression, Ricky gets high in his bedroom (and not a Fabreze bottle in sight!), has no qualms about approaching new-neighbor Lester about getting high at a catered function, and tells off his boss and quits while getting high with Lester at the same function, apparently unconcerned that Evil, Military Dad might get a whiff of what's transpired. He's the mysterious, nonviolent rebel of every angst-ridden school girl's dreams, the envy of past-their-prime men, and he couldn't be less realistic if he'd been given superpowers.
Bening makes a valiant effort to act some sympathy into Carolyn, but since Ball and Mendes clearly detest this character, she's swimming upstream against a raging and destructive current. A near-touching scene in which she cries after a day of showing a house to disinterested potential buyers ends up a queasy joke when she starts slapping herself to regain composure; an attempted heartfelt talk with her daughter just makes her look clueless and foolish.
Of course, a big part of Carolyn's problem is that she's materialistic. She likes having a nice home, has gardening shears that match her gardening clogs, and in what I guess is supposed to be a defining moment, she interrupts an impromptu and unexpected seduction by Lester to ask him not to spill his beer on their expensive couch. Since Lester has the attention span of a 3-year-old and the manufactured angst of a 15-year-old, he flies into a rage instead of just putting the stupid bottle on the stupid table and continuing his stupid seduction. Nice work, Carolyn! Carolyn's materialism has helped make her old and frigid, and since materialism is such an ingrained part of the American Dream, we're shown that people who are wrapped up in their nice homes and gardens and such are not really living -- except, of course, middle-aged men who, like Lester, blow all their money on their dream cars, because that makes you cool, carefree, and adventurous.
Then there's Carolyn's affair with successful realtor "Buddy." Since he's got such a toolish name, it stands to reason the guy's a tool who represents everything that's wrong the middle- to upper-middle class. Perhaps. But he seems to genuinely like Carolyn -- which, of course, makes him ridiculous. He understands her -- which means he's just as pathetic as she is -- and they enjoy each other's company. If American Beauty were her story, this would be Carolyn's chance to break away from the husband she's grown away from. But this isn't her story, and to remind you that Carolyn is nothing more than a joke, Mendes films her sex scene with Buddy in the most unflattering light possible, like a soft-core Saturday Night Live skit -- naturally, since two 40-year-olds having a dalliance in a hotel room is tawdry, laughable, and sleazy, unlike, say, a 42-year-old man masturbating over a high school sophomore, which is bold, daring, and thing of beauty.
It's a little disconcerting to consider that of the four main female characters, one's a shrew, one's a zombie, and the other is a vapid, disruptive teen. Only Jane approaches anything near sympathetic or well-rounded, and she only "finds" herself thanks to a male character.
Spacey won an Oscar for this, and it probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight, his self-satisfied portrayal was merely the first drip that would unleash the floodgates of subsequent self-satisfied portrayals in films like K-Pax, The Life of David Gale, and Play It Forward. He does well enough playing a confused and confusing character whose last-minute moral revelation seems more like a cop-out than an epiphany.
Thora Birch is very good as the gradually empowered Jane, and Mena Suvari quite touching as the fragile teen beauty, whose insecurities and neuroses are unmasked in a disturbingly cruel scene -- disturbing because we're supposed to be on the side of the male character who tells her off.
For fans of American Beauty, Paramount's Sapphire Series edition doesn't bring a whole lot to the table. The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 image is reasonable by Blu-ray standards and boasts pretty good detail, but it's not a dramatic uptick from the earlier, standard DVD release. Audio is solid, but like the image, it just doesn't pop the way you'd like it to.
The big disappointment, though, is that the extras are the same ones that were on the 2000 DVD release: a commentary with Ball and Mendes, the featurette "American Beauty: Look Closer...," storyboard comparisons with Mendes and Hall, and a couple of trailers. Clearly, I'm not a fan of this film, but plenty of people are; you'd think Paramount could have come up with something for this Blu-ray besides recycling 10-year-old supplements.
I realize I'm registering a dissenting, minority opinion to a highly regarded film, but American Beauty just didn't do it for me. The broadly drawn, cartoonish characters and clumsy sitcom set-ups made it too distancing for me to feel an emotional connection, and it wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know (life sucks when you get older, people and feelings are more important than things, etc.). I've read the overwhelmingly positive reviews, I've talked to people who thought it was great, but for me...well, see above.
Trite, snarky, and lacking insight, this is an incredibly overrated film that panders to its audience. Not brave enough to be a full-on satire, it's at its heart a middling TV movie. Paramount's Sapphire Series Blu-ray is pretty much a retread of the DVD with marginally better tech. If you have the first release, I don't know that this warrants an upgrade.
I'm calling it guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R