[box cover]

American Beauty: The Awards Edition

Dreamworks Home Entertainment

Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch,
Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari and Chris Cooper

Written by Alan Ball
Directed by Sam Mendes

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Five Oscars. Sixty-five critics' awards. Six BAFTAs. Several Golden Globes. Numerous guild commendations. Rankings on 277 top-ten lists. Two million thumbs up.

American Beauty cleaned up the film awards for 1999, as it well should have. It was, after all, nearly scientifically engineered to win awards.

Kevin Spacey (he won an Oscar) stars as Lester Burnham, a burned-out copywriter treading water in the suffocating mid-life dysfunction of placid suburbia. His wife (Annette Bening — also a winner) is a shrill, hysterical harpy, equal parts Martha Stewart and Rasputin. His despondent teenage daughter (Thora Birch — didn't win an Oscar, did star in Monkey Trouble) hates him. His despondent teenage daughter's slutty friend (Mena Suvari — won several magazine covers) turns him the hell on. In short, Lester misses his adolescence. You know, when all that mattered was a cool car, a rockin' 8-track, a little doobie, and chicks that put out.

So, taking some inspiration from the apparently carefree attitude of new teenage neighbor (and subsequent daughter-enamorer) Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), Lester tunes in, turns on, and drops out.

What Lester doesn't know is that:

  1. Ricky is really a weird sociopath;
  2. Ricky's dad (Chris Cooper) is a violent military fag-hater;
  3. Jail bait is a better fantasy than it is a reality;
  4. Lester's frigid wife is really a hot sex freak when nailed by sleazy real estate agents; and that,
  5. Screenwriter Alan Ball plans to contrive a grisly demise for Lester by convoluting a climax out of these otherwise only tangentially related clichés. Because award-winning pictures like American Beauty can't really be meaningful unless someone dies at the end.

Ball and director Sam Mendes (both Oscar winners, and both first-timers), perhaps unknowingly, concocted a perfect — and perfectly frustrating — accolade receptacle. American Beauty is a shallow, awkward brew of broad farce, condescending social commentary, and cheap melodramatics, validated by one "It"-actor of deserved renown (Spacey), eye-catching (and body-baring) turns by two virtual unknowns (Bentley and Birch), one "It"-actress of undeserved hype (Suvari), some arty pap having to do with badly CGI-ed rose petals, and a couple of really touching and meaningful moments that made it in there somehow, too. But most importantly, Ball and Mendes carefully spell out every situation, conflict, and emotion with the explicit approach of third-grade teachers, just to make sure everyone gets it. And that means the people who give out the awards. It's "art" for the not-too-bright.

Ball, formerly a writer for the short-lived sitcom "Cybil," gets stuck in TV mode. His characters all interact and react like rigid caricatures building toward a punchline, and Mendes, with his musical theater background, directs his actors to play accordingly, with lots of "big" confrontations, artificial speeches, and scenery-chewing breakdowns. There are times when it feels like American Beauty would've been truer to itself as one of those zany comedies about a grown man trying to act like a teenager, as Ball and Mendes craft some well-oiled farce in this direction. But when the farce tries to suddenly segue into drama again, there's not the necessary character development to back it up.

Even worse than these irreconcilable genre shifts, though, is the condescending nature of Ball's point-of-view. First there's the tired urban artist's conceit that middle class suburbia is really a mounting volcano of dysfunction, bitterness, repression, and fear. Debilitating neurosis is the status quo for all of Ball's characters — except for the neighborhood's idyllic gay couple, which, under the guise of progressive cheek still reduces gay characters to token, one-dimensional pawns of some social agenda. Neither does Ball allows any integrity whatsoever for Cooper's rigid Marine, who must be unequivocally bad to fit the writer's narrow purpose. And so is Bening's character limited to a gallery of shrieking fits and chilly glares to justify hero Lester's misdirected longing to juvenilia — and provide lots of juicy clips for the Oscar broadcast.

Ball uses as the impetus for Lester's denouement a ridiculously contrived misunderstanding of Blake Edwardsian — no, of Three's Company-esque — proportions. And beyond that, Lester's fate is simply gratuitous, sadly overshadowing the impact of his important moment of truth seconds prior; perhaps another sign from the writer of contempt for this pitiable suburban heel.

The best moments in American Beauty are reserved for Birch and Bentley, even if their young characters don't really make much sense, either. Birch's Jane is a contemptuous, self-loathing teen who still willfully participates in a school dance team that does robot mime in bowler hats during half-time at the game — and without even wincing! (And what reasonable girl wouldn't swoon when a young man tells her she's beautiful, just days after saying the same about a dead bird.) And Bentley is portrayed as brooding and romantic despite exhibiting a sharply split personality, emotional detachment from death, and prime stalker M.O. Yet these poorly drawn characters gain our empathy partly thanks to out-of-place subtle performances, but mostly because we, like them, are also confounded by the truly bizarre and unnatural antics of the broad, quirky adults surrounding them — and are all too eager to escape.

Some of the other acting, however, is ludicrous. Bening's hammy theatrics echo Mommy Dearest, and Suvari — whose customarily weird inflection seems to go unnoticed as her dim star rises — is overbearing to the brink of embarrassment. If she were to give this same performance on an episode of Full House she would be roundly ridiculed — it's that bad. But she shows her boobies, so everyone lets it slide.

Amidst his comic-book characterizations and tabloidy sensationalism, Ball does hit on some salient notions about unsighted self-destruction and the reverberations within destructive families, but didn't The Ice Storm and Fargo find a way to address those same important themes with immeasurably more craft, thought, and subtlety? Of course. And that's why they didn't win the big awards, and American Beauty won ten gazillion.

It's fitting, I guess, that the film's wonderful signature image of a plastic bag dancing lyrically in the wind as an example of the extraordinary, unappreciated beauty to be found amongst the dreck of everyday life works exactly the same way within the context of this otherwise poor movie. I would say it's too bad such promise went unfulfilled, but apparently I'm the only one who thinks so.

Just to rub it in, this DreamWorks's DVD release of American Beauty is not a Special Edition or a Collector's Edition. No — it's The Awards Edition, mirroring the subtlety of the film itself. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and 5.1 audio in either Dolby Digital or DTS. Includes commentary by Ball and Mendes, storyboards with commentary by Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, a "making-of" featurette, textual notes, and DVD-ROM features, including a split-screen presentation of the screenplay alongside the running movie.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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