In American Beauty, Sam Mendes creates a story that perfectly mixes both humor and terror. This is a film about a man trying to get his life back in the wrong place and the wrong time. But he feels like he has nothing to lose: and he's right. He has a daugther that resents him, a wife that doesn't notice him, and a job that bores him. What's to lose? So when he meets his daughter's beautiful new friend, he's willing to risk all of that crap to see if he can get his old life back.

The movie stars Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning role, as Lester Burnham, an unloving, uninvolved husband and father. His boring life ironically turns around when he is forced by his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), to go see his daughter's cheerleading performance. Almost immediately after it begins, Lester has his eyes glued to the most beautiful woman in the bunch: Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Of course, Angela is his daughter's best friend and Lester subsequently makes a fool out of himself when they meet in the parking lot.

After this encounter, Lester overhears Angela saying that "if he just worked out a little, he'd be hot." Shortly after he creates a health club in his garage, Lester meets his new next door neighbor, a kid named Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Fitts is the son of Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) and Barbara (Allison Janney). He is a rebellious, but smart kid as he manages to keep his drug dealing business a secret from his investigative father. And, thus, our story begins as Spacey's character transforms into a pot-smoking, weight-lifting bad boy.

This film feels very similar to Mendes'
Revolutionary Road. Both films feature a soft, depressing piano soundtrack that plays consistently throughout the film that contributes a great deal to the almost horrific mood of the film. Both films are so dark, but American Beauty manages to be better for a couple of reasons. The first is the deadpan comedy skills of Kevin Spacey. DiCaprio is a brilliant actor and his dramatic turn in Revolutionary Road deserved an Oscar nomination; however, American Beauty is a film that benefits greatly from the comedic moments. In fact, the comedy significantly adds to the shock of the film. The way Spacey manages to stay so expressionless in scenes that seem like they should be dramatically potent is very intriguing to watch. I’m not sure it’s his best performance, but it’s surely perfect for this movie.

The other thing that sets it apart is the strength of the supporting characters. Even though Michael Shannon received a nomination for Revolutionary Road, that film was pretty much all DiCaprio and Winslet. Well, American Beauty isn't only Bening and Spacey. All of the supporting characters are so well-defined and well-developed, and they are played perfectly. The two best of the bunch are Wes Bentley and Thora Birch. Birch plays Lester and Carolyn's daughter Jane who is consistently depressed by her parent's distant relationship and their lack of support in her life. She embodies the role with such skill that we truly believe she isn't just another defiant daughter; she has deeply-involved emotions. Another supporting performance to mention is Chris Cooper. The scenes between him and Bentley are particularly powerful as the marine father loses control of his growing, rebellious son.

The success of American Beauty can be summarized in this one sentence: It grossed over $350 million worldwide on a $15 million budget. Oh, and it also won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. That is absolutely astounding, and it is well-deserved success.


10 comments:

Rae Kasey said...

Mendes is masterful with crumbling American marriages.

One of my favorite elements of the film (apart from everything you mention here) is Thomas Newman's score. It's a thing of tragic beauty.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Love this movie. Spacey and Bening [whom I adore] are delicious together and although they are responsible for a lot of the finer scenes in the film Bentley, Birch, Cooper and Janey gives do well too. This is just an all around great film...

Danny King said...

Rae: I believe I did mention the score, but if I forgot to, I certainly should've, it's a big part of the movie.

Andrew: All of the acting is so good here. I tried to single out the supporting performances in the review because they didn't get much Awards consideration.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Very true about the lack of love for the supporting performances. But in general the good performances were ignored that year...in Supporting Actor I can't remember liking any of the nominees... I may have to review this year sometime soon though. There were many good but unverloved films that year [particularly Fight Club]. But at least they got the top prize right.

Danny King said...

I would agree that some of the Supporting Actor nominees were the wrong choices. However, I think Jude Law was terrific in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I don't know if you've seen that movie recently, but if not, definitely give it a watch it is one of the best movies from that year.

Rae Kasey said...

You did! I just meant it was a standout component for me.

Great review, glad you enjoyed the film. :)

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Oh...forgot Jude...100 Hail Mary's for me. Yup that was excellent. DOH.

James D. said...

Great writeup. Chris Cooper's role always stood out to me. The role could have been played terribly by so many other actors, but Cooper finds just the right position in his hypermasculinity and his prejudices.

Danny King said...

Completely agree, James. Cooper is a terrific actor, and he really defines the role well (like you said, with the prejudices) in a somewhat limited amount of screen time.

Anonymous said...

Great Review, what do you think Sherwin would think of this movie?

Related Posts with Thumbnails