When a film comes out that touches perfectly on the traits of our modern society, and is filled with characters that whether we like it or not can likely relate with on some level, it’s something special. American Beauty came out in 1999 and immediately caught the attention of critics and audiences everywhere on its way to capturing the Best Picture Oscar, and it was good to see that eleven years later, the film still holds up strong on all fronts.
The film tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a husband and father, and overall depressed human being who goes through his monotonous life keeping his mouth shut, just trying to get through each day without ruffling too many feathers. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a realtor who is focused on her career and appearances, always worried about how people will view them, and always trying to keep their home in prime condition, both inside and out for the very same reason. Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) is a high school student who knows she’s different, yet wants nothing more than to fit in with the kids she feels are normal. They all live in the same house, yet at the same time, have completely lost touch with one another, and might as well be strangers at this point in their lives.
At the start of the film, Lester tells us that in six months he’ll be dead, though, as he looks at his life at that moment, he says that in a lot of ways, “I’m already dead.” It’s such a powerful statement, and one that a lot of people try to blissfully ignore, yet at the same time, can understand fully. While we don’t always want to admit it to ourselves, you have to agree that the question of, “What am I doing with my life?” has likely popped up at some point, and the older you get, the more this question sometimes gets asked.
Change is always something people want, yet more times than not, cannot achieve, simply out of fear, or the inability to let go of a comfortable lifestyle that they’ve grown accustomed to. Sure, there are commitments to others if you’re married and or have a family, so you can’t just up and quit your job, but if you aren’t truly happy where you are, or where you’re headed, it’s always pondered as to what might just happen if you threw caution to the wind and just did what your heart desired.
This idea is one reason I think American Beauty touched so many people, and became as popular as it did. Watching Lester start out as a shell of a man, defeated by everything that had been thrown at him, then slowly regain his backbone and confidence, and regain the spark for life, the eye of the tiger is an inspiring sight to behold. The film is filled with changes, and growing as people, and learning about mistakes made and trying to rectify them, even if everyone around you may view it as a mid-life crisis. He’s not the only one who changes throughout the picture, as growing, and understanding oneself is something that touches all the characters in one way or another.
Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) won the Oscar for Best Director for his work on this film, which also happened to be the first film he ever directed. Coming from theater, he obviously had an eye for visuals, but his work here just shows that right from the start he was destined to become one of the greats in the business. Also not hurting things on the visual front is the fantastic works of late Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who Mendes worked with again in Road to Perdition for obvious reasons.
Another first timer was writer Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) who also won the Academy Award for his work here. The writing can’t be complimented enough, as while it helps to have a great visual director such as Mendes, the way Ball wrote the film, you can visualize everything perfectly just by reading his words.
The acting is some of the best works by those involved, with Spacey leading the way, and a Best Actor Oscar to show for it. Lester is easily one of the best characters Spacey has played in his career, and you can tell he let himself go and just had fun with it. In fact, you can tell the entire cast just grew into their roles, and became their characters, as everyone comes to life on the screen. Bening is superb as Carolyn, and Birch is also great as Jane. Others not mentioned above, but equally worthy of praise (and also of screen time in the film, to be fair) are Mena Suvari, who played Jane’s narcissistic best friend (and the object of Lester’s innermost desires), Wes Bentley, who played Ricky Fitts, Jane’s boyfriend with a unique vision of the world, and Chris Cooper, who played Col. Frank Fitts, USMC, the father of Ricky, and a straight up military man through and through.
American Beauty is a masterpiece of a film that touches on emotions and themes that we can’t help but recognize with. By the second half of the film Lester Burnham is, on some level, the guy we all want to be. He takes his life into his own hands, throws out the rulebook, and realizes that he’s only got one life to live, and he’s going to stop it from spiraling out of control, and start enjoying it with his head held high. It’s a hard pill to swallow, jumping out into the unknown, but this film is an underdog story of a different type, and it’s an inspirational tale that does stick with you, and makes you want to look closer, and enjoy all the small things in life that might otherwise pass you by.
Here’s where things get tricky, as once again the Sapphire Series comes in short in the video department. With Blu-rays becoming the next level in entertainment and clarity, and other Paramount releases looking absolutely stunning, there’s really no reason why each film shouldn’t get the same treatment. It’s not like there was a massive demand for American Beauty to be out this instant. If it needed another year or so to get cleaned up, I’m sure people would have waited. The visuals are decent, but not up to standard. It likely won’t be incredibly distracting, but those who enjoy the crispness of a solid Blu-ray transfer, you’ll likely cringe at certain moments, when things just don’t look that good. The audio on the other hand is great, with a fantastic score echoing throughout the film, and the dialogue and background noise all meshing together perfectly.
Commentary by Director Sam Mendes and Screenwriter Alan Ball – It’s always nice when commentaries are available, as while they aren’t for everyone, they’re always better than just slapping some deleted scenes in and calling them bonus features. It’s a great listen here, as these guys really enjoyed working on this film. Fans should enjoy it.
American Beauty: Look Closer… – This is a roughly 20 minute featurette that covers the basics of what the cast thought of the film, and how the crew was put together. It’s not too in-depth, but on the other hand, who just want a quick bit of insight into how the cast felt about the film will get what they’re looking for here.
Storyboard Presentation with Sam Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad L. Hall – This’ll be the one that fans will want to see most, as it’s an hour long feature that delves into the minds of Hall and Mendes in their journey to bring the film to life from the written page and storyboards. Mendes and Hall worked together again on Road to Perdition, which was also a fantastically beautiful film, and this is a treat to anyone who wants to see just how these two made things work.
There are also two theatrical trailers for the film to be found here.
American Beauty is a classic, plain and simple (or is it anything but?). It still holds up incredibly well over a decade later, and I believe it’s one that will stand the test of time. Spacey leads a group of extremely talented actors in what many may call their best works to date, and anytime you get to see a film that involves both Sam Mendes and Conrad L. Hall you know you’re in for a treat. That said, this one may be for true fans who really want the Blu-ray upgrade, or for those who don’t own the film as of yet. While it’s not entirely distracting, it’s not as crisp a transfer as one would have hoped for an entry into the Sapphire Series. Maybe they’ll do what they did with Gladiator and re-release it down the road. Still, it’s a masterful film, and highly recommended.
Dreamworks Pictures presents a Jinks/Cohen Company Production American Beauty. Directed by: Sam Mendes. Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper. Written by: Alan Ball. Running time: 122 minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: September 21, 2010.
Brendan Campbell was here when Inside Pulse Movies began, and he’ll be here when it finishes - in 2012, when a cataclysmic event wipes out the servers, as well as everyone else on the planet other than John Cusack and those close to him. Brendan’s the #1 supporter of Keanu Reeves, a huge fan of popcorn flicks and a firm believer that sheer entertainment can take a film a long way. He currently resides in Canada, where, for reasons stated above, he’s attempting to get closer to John Cusack.