Thursday, November 26, 2009

American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty holds a very special place in my heart. It was the introduction into the world of serious film making for me. I had seen, and appreciated, movies before this time, but I can remember a viewing of American Beauty in 2005 kicking off my love for movies in earnest. It's been four years since that viewing and the film still excites me. Despite some heavy handed direction, American Beauty still, fundamentally, succeeds because of it's top-notch writing and some excellent performances.

American Beauty is the big-screen debut of both director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball. Amazingly, both won Oscars for the film and it also picked up three more awards; including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Kevin Spacey and Best Cinematography. American Beauty is the story of Lester Burnham. Played by Spacey, Lester, a depressed, middle-aged man, is reinvigorated when he becomes infatuated with his daughters young friend. As Lester lives happily again for the first time in years, his wife has an affair and his daughter falls in love with the strange young man that just moved in next door. All of this leads up to Lester's death, which you were told about within the first five minutes of the film. The cast also includes Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari and Chris Cooper.

Thematically, American Beauty is a pretty simple movie. As an exploration of "beauty" and what it means to different people, the film succeeds. As a look at an unhappy, suburban family and a condemnation of that lifestyle, the film also succeeds. These successes can be fully attributed to the script. Sharp, funny and, at times, unbearably sad, Ball's script is truly a masterful work of characterization. Each character feels so alive, so complex and so real that you can immediately relate to at least one of them. Every single character goes on a journey worthy of notice, and it's so rare that a script pays this much attention to  the supporting characters. In my mind, it's one of the best scripts in recent memory.

With so much to work with, it's no surprise that the performances here are top notch. Obviously, the films success has a lot to do with Spacey's success. His wit and skill are so important to the film that, American Beauty, without Kevin Spacey, would probably have gone unnoticed. His performance is masterful and so thoroughly discussed that I won't bore you with any more discussion of it. Everyone else acts up to Spacey accordingly. Annette Bening is really marvelous as well, but the surprise here is Chris Cooper. Describing Cooper as inconsistent would be about as accurate as you could get. His career has had some very high points, but quite a few low points as well. In American Beauty, he really knocks it out of the park and he deserves more credit than he gets.

American Beauty's faults fall squarely on the shoulders of rookie director Sam Mendes. Don't get me wrong, his work here is great at times, but his heavy handed use of metaphor, symbolism and technique really bog down an otherwise taut drama. While the overuse of the rose red metaphor can't be wholly attributed to Mendes, since I'm sure it was written in the script, his job was to act as a filter for the final product. In this capacity, he failed in my opinion. More subtle use of the rose metaphor would have reduced the bludgeoning sensation that seeing a rose on the screen caused after the first hour of the film. There is also an issue with the continuous use of double takes. Why Mendes decided that some action should be show three or four times is just beyond me. It's a blatant nod to the fact you are watching a movie, but it doesn't really pay off. Yes, those actions are important, but there are far more artful and subtle ways for a film-maker to get the audience to notice. The only real effective use of this is with the gun shot at the end of the film. The repetition there is marvelous and it's probably the best sequence in the entire movie. It's impossible to say that this would be true without the constant use of repetition early on, but my gut tells me that it would be just as effective without it. What you see in American Beauty from a directorial standpoint is a talented director trying to make the leap from the stage to the screen. This is marked with great success at times, but also marred with overly blunt technique that works on the stage but not on the big screen.

American Beauty is a movie that toes the line between brilliance and pretentiousness so closely that, sometimes,  it's hard to tell the two apart. What tips the balance in the films favor is the remarkable performances and the perfectly balanced script that ground the movie in reality. It's a film I will definitely never forget and worthy of most of the accolades it received and continues to receive.


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