American Beauty (1999)
Jane: Mom, do we have to listen to this elevator music?
Carolyn: No. No we don't. And as soon as you've prepared a nutritious yet savory meal that I'm about to eat, you can listen to whatever you like.- Thora Birch and Annette Bening
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley
Other Stars: Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper
Director: Sam Mendes
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content
Run Time: 02h:41m:43s
Release Date: 2000-10-24
DVD ReviewFrom mid-summer 1999 up until the Oscars® in March 2000, the one film I kept hearing was a lock for an Oscar® nod was American Beauty. I heard people praise the acting, the directing, the cinematography, and most of all, the script. When I finally saw it in February, I was blown away (like I was really going to say anything else). While not a perfect film, American Beauty is pretty close, and the only films I liked more in '99 were Being John Malkovich and Magnolia.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is trapped—trapped in his mundane job, his too-perfect neighborhood, and his loveless marriage with Carolyn (Annette Bening). In his opening monologue, he informs us that he will die within a year from the start of the film. What follows is a look into his final year of life, his obsession with a teenage girl (Mena Suvari), and his ultimate metaphorical rebirth and realization of life's inherent beauty. Of course, there are other stories here—Carolyn deals with the pressures of maintaining a perfect façade, and her daughter Jane (Thora Birch) deals with the inadequacies of the teen years. Meanwhile the Burnham's neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley) has to deal with his strict, distant, military father and his own unique outlook on life.
The acting in this film is uniformly outstanding. Of course, Spacey is amazing in his Oscar®-winning role. His transformation from defeated, tightly-wound cynic to a liberated, free spirit is amazing. It is also remarkable to note that Spacey was able to play a lech lusting after a teenage girl without seeming totally unappealing or unrealistic. Annette Bening gives a rather complex and rewarding performance as well. Her choices for Carolyn at first seem almost too over-the-top, but the fact is that Carolyn herself is always acting the part, keeping up appearances. In this light, Bening's work seems more than suitable. Bentley gives Ricky an unsettling calmness, and Birch provides just the right amount of teen angst for Jane. My favorite performance, however, is Mena Suvari's as the object of Lester's affection, Angela. Her sarcasm is hilarious, and she seems so realistic as the self-centered teen. Her performance avoids being one-note in her touching final scenes with Lester.
The work by Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad Hall almost overshadows the work of the actors. Mendes brilliantly balances the conflicting humor and drama of the script and the commentary on the disc reveals just how much went in to achieving that. He has extracted excellent performances from excellent actors—this will almost certainly be the best work any of them will ever do. Conrad Hall brought art back to the mainstream film with his beautiful lighting and compositions. It's fine to watch the film carefully to note all the instances of color symbolism and symmetrical images.
Alan Ball's script is likewise superb. He has written some of the best dialogue in recent years, and he has a real feel for the characters and their journeys. He presents a story that can apply to the real lives of many (at least, to those of us in the middle class), and presents some real truths about human nature. However, I had one small problem with clichés in the third act—the repressed homosexual has been done before (although never better), and the mistaken drug/sex scene at the end of the film is so ridiculous that I am reminded of Three's Company. I kept expecting Chrissy to pop in and announce that, no, she really wasn't pregnant.
Despite these very small problems, American Beauty is uniformly excellent and superior to 90 percent of the usual Hollywood fare. For once, I believe the Academy® made the right choice for Best Picture.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
|Aspect Ratio||2.35:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The picture quality here is excellent overall. Colors retain the slightly washed-out, grainy look of the theatrical presentation. Conrad Hall's work is represented very well. Black level is excellent, as is color contrast. The only problems I had were a few instances of shimmer and a bit of edge-enhancement.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 track was the one used for this review, and I found it to be excellent. Dialogue is always clear and crisp. Thomas Newman's beautiful score is clearly represented in the surrounds and never seems too loud. For the most part, other than the score, everything is represented by the front channels, but during several scenes (the finale in particular), they become quite active with rain and the infamous gunshot.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Sam Mendes and Writer Alan Ball
Layers Switch: 01h:13m:22s
Extras Review: When American Beauty was first announced for DVD, the target date was May 2nd. When it eventually came out, it was October 24th. The lengthy delay was supposedly to add "valuable bonus features." I think it was a combination of two things—the desire to avoid a cannibalization of the rental profits and a hope that Mendes would change his mind regarding the much-publicized deleted scenes. So, was the wait worth it? Well, Mendes still declined to include the deleted scenes, but there are some good extras anyway. I just can't help but feel that all of them were in the can well in advance of the early May date. But oh well, the movie is finally here and the extras are nice.
Billed as an "Awards Edition," American Beauty includes a small number of individual features, but all are of high quality. First up is the commentary with Mendes. Mendes offers - wait, oh yeah, writer Alan Ball participates as well, but you can count his contributions on one hand, so I tended to forget he was there. Mendes says he is a big fan of commentaries in general, and it is certainly clear that he knows what makes a good one. His track simultaneously blends technical information, on-the-set anecdotes, and humor (lots of it) for a very engaging way to spend two hours.
The documentary American Beauty: Look Closer - runs about 22 minutes, but I'd say a solid third of that is comprised of film clips. The clips combine with on-the-set actor/director interviews and some self-congratulatory backslapping at the Golden Globes. The result is a superficial, glossed over look at a film that deserved something much more in depth. This piece really feels like a slightly more ambitious version of the HBO: First Look specials that appear on most Universal discs.
The final substantial extra is the storyboard to screen comparison with commentary by Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad Hall. Their presentation is very informative, but very technical. This is the most in-depth storyboard presentation I have seen, and it was very interesting for the most part.
Extras rounding out the disc include two theatrical trailers, in-depth actor bios, and some rather lengthy production notes. One note on the menus—I love the plastic bag scene as much as anybody, but doesn't it seem a bit trite to use it as the background for the menu screen?
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsWhat can I say about a Best Picture winner? American Beauty, despite some formulaic elements in the final third of the film, stands as one of the best of the decade and the best major studio film in years. Despite the wishes of Sam Mendes to exclude the deleted bookends for the film, DreamWorks has delivered a very fine DVD that is well worth your time and money.
Joel Cunningham 2000-11-06