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American Beauty Print E-mail
Tuesday, 24 October 2000

American Beauty

DreamWorks Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari
release year: 1999
film rating: Four-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture: Four Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Sometimes, a movie really surprises you – you become immersed in the world it creates, yet you can’t anticipate what it will give you next. This last is an especially neat trick in ‘American Beauty,’ as our narrator/protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) tells us at the beginning that he’ll be dead by the end.

When Lester introduces himself to us, he is living a life of quiet desperation (punctuated by occasional through-clenched-teeth warfare) in upper-middle-class suburbia with wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and teenaged daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Lester works at a job he hates; Carolyn is a realtor who psychs herself up with self-help tapes; Jane is in the throes of adolescent self-loathing that she’s impartially spread to both parents. The household is picture-perfect on the outside and writhing with misery inside. Then Ricky (Wes Bentley), the new boy next door, in covert rebellion against his rigid father (Chris Cooper), develops an ardent interest in the nonplused Jane while simultaneously befriending Lester. Meanwhile, Lester is literally dumbstruck by the beauty of his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari). Suddenly, Lester is driven to work out and act up. He decides that he’s going to be happy – and for awhile, in ways that we can’t foresee, he is.

The sound on ‘American Beauty’ is consistently solid and well-mixed, but it seldom if ever does anything particularly noteworthy. A phone ring in Chapter 1 is briefly startling, but this is the exception rather than the rule; most sound here is intended to interact with the rest of the ambient noise without detracting from the dialogue. Even the gunshot in Chapter 27 (replayed a few times for dramatic purposes spelled out in the audio commentary track) comes across as being somewhat restrained, though it certainly has impact. There’s a nice use of surround in the roar of a crowd at a basketball game in Chapter 4, a cheerful balance of dialogue with Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (supposedly from Lester’s audio system) in Chapter 13 and a joyous blend of the “radio” broadcast of “American Woman” with Lester singing along zestily. Chapter 26 has good surround rain effects and the Thomas Newman score, with its wistful, inquiring themes, is lovely throughout. However, this is a film about performance and dialogue in which the filmmakers would rather you simply absorb any special effects, rather than contemplate them out of context.

Sam Mendes, a much-praised stage director in his filmmaking debut here, combines the best of theatrical technique and cinematic pizzazz. His timing is impeccable, he gets top-level performances from every one of the actors and he has an assured visual style that complements the narrative rather than overpowering it. A motif with red rose petals (Lester envisions them proliferating whenever he’s joyous or lustful) is reminiscent of Neil Jordan’s work, but the imagery simply supports the themes rather than overwhelming them. Alan Ball’s script is wonderfully dry and pointed, with a view of the characters that manages to be bemused at how angry and screwed up they are yet conveying overwhelming compassion for all parties. Mendes and Ball together contribute a friendly, informative commentary (with Mendes doing most of the talking).

Spacey, a splendid actor under virtually all circumstances, surpasses himself here. Lester can be bitter, silly, self-deprecating, loving and philosophical all in the same beat; Space takes the gorgeously-written role and explores every dimension of it. It’s to the actor’s credit that while we soon find Lester charming, he lets us see why Carolyn and Jane continue to be appalled by him. Bening makes Carolyn brittle without turning her into a caricature, giving us the hardness that the world sees while illuminating why this woman feels she needs to be armored at all times. Birch is alive with anger, vulnerability and a capacity for awe, while Bentley, playing arguably the most stable of the main characters, is able to come off as both highly focused yet slightly otherworldly.

Between them, Mendes, Ball and their cast have brought forth one of the most intelligent, compelling (and hilarious) tragicomedies about American families and their facades since ‘The Graduate.’ Its 1999 Best Picture Oscar is well-deserved.

more details
sound format:
DTS 5.1 Surround; Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; Dolby Surround
aspect ratio(s):
Original 2.35:1 Aspect Ratio
special features: Making-Of Documentary; Audio Commentary Track with Director Sam Mendes and Writer Alan Ball; Storyboard Presentation with Audio Commentary by Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall; Cast and Crew Biographies; Production Notes; Two Theatrical Trailers; DVD-ROM Content, Including Screenplay; English Closed-Captioning; Chapter Search
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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