TBT: American Beauty (1999)

Unlike last week’s discovery, sometimes putting off a movie you’ve been aware of for many years is a strategy that pays dividends. Of course today we’re going to be looking at a movie that is so radically different that comparisons need not be made. I suppose the point of all this incessant rambling is for me to declare August 2015 as the month in which I finally decided to do something about those movies sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house, collecting dust. Unlike the CD it’s clear to me that good, old-fashioned DVDs will remain relevant even as we journey into a future filled with Netflix originals and online distributions and other, more modern forms of accessing cinematic entertainment. Some movies belong on the DVD shelf, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Today’s food for thought: American Beauty.

Stuck in a cinematic mid-life crisis since: October 1, 1999

[DVD]

It doesn’t matter that I’m only 16 years late to the party. It doesn’t matter that I’ve likely missed the most fervent discussions about one of the most striking suburban dramas American cinema has ever produced (and it doesn’t matter that the film wasn’t made by an American director, either — curiously he, Sam Mendes, of British stage and film background, would go on to make the film that reaffirmed Daniel Craig as the James Bond of a new generation). It doesn’t matter at all, because now I’ve seen American Beauty.

That is a big check mark on a list of films I have been meaning to see for some time. You’ll have to forgive me for a TBT post that is going to rehash what millions have already said (and said better), but at this point I think it’s all but impossible to stage a novel argument in defense of Mendes’ directorial debut, one that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

American Beauty is a kaleidoscope of themes and stories, all wrapped up in a mesmerizing cinematic package that would later rename Kevin Spacey as Best Actor of 1999 (though his co-star Annette Bening didn’t receive the same level of recognition her sensational turn as materialistic wife Carolyn Burnham all but demanded); Sam Mendes as the director of the moment; and would identify the Alan Ball-written screenplay superlative amongst all other original screenplays that year. Given its numerous interpretations since, American Beauty could almost be taken as an anthology. However, its rumination on beauty, youth, aging, sexuality and, perhaps most interestingly, how we define domestic bliss are all in service to Spacey’s Lester Burnham, whose trajectory from bummed out and frustrated to amped up and care-free can only be described as a mid-life crisis brought on by his chance encounter with a friend of his teenaged daughter.

The title itself seems almost too obvious, but when becoming familiar with the power dynamics that drive the Burnham household — it’s a family of three, with the moody and misunderstood Jane (Thora Birch) stuck in the middle of her parents’ drama more often than not — American Beauty becomes ever increasingly more ironic, encompassing both the physical and psychological manifestations of beauty. And despite the focus on Spacey’s character in particular, the numerous thematic explorations involve the film’s sprawling cast, most of whom turn in award-worthy performances as well.

The Burnhams have new neighbors moving in on their right, disciplinary father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper, who has no trouble rising to the challenge of matching the intensity of his co-stars’ performances) and his obedient son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is obsessed with documenting the world around him with his videocamera, including the girl next door. That relationship rivals the Burnham’s marriage in terms of tumultuousness and distrust. A heartbreaking performance from Allison Janney as Mrs. Fitts gives the impression that this family unit is in fact more damaged. While these people exist a little more on the fringe they nonetheless contribute significantly to the eye-opening drama. Then of course there’s the dialogue between Jane and that flirty friend of hers, Angela (Mena Suvari), who, as is the case with many teens, are constantly talking about which person at their school they should date next. Their obsession with looks and social status say much about the rest of the film’s focus on adults trying to come to terms with their position in life.

Mendes’ direction is perfectly polished, barely trumping the perceptiveness of Ball’s story. (Incredibly, the man has only gone on to write one other film since.) Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something very discomforting about watching a grown man up and quit a secure job at a magazine publisher only to take up a day job serving fast food. Equally distressing is seeing him change around his daily routine to include working out and taking long jogs so he can taylor his physique to Angela’s liking. He trades in his crappy old Camry for a shiny new sports car, a rash decision that, by most people’s definition, represents a mid-life crisis in and of itself. This breakdown (more like rediscovery given the amusing change in tone) doesn’t spring out of nowhere, mind; in Lester’s own words: “[Carolyn] prefers I go through life as a (swear word) prisoner while she keeps my (man-parts) in a mason jar under the sink. I’m so sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist in this family . . .”

As a credit to Ball, American Beauty is a film that perpetually skirts around cliché, but even more than that, it creates situations and emotions that feel unique and original, rather than merely offering surprises on the virtue of its subversive tendencies. It’s uplifting watching this man’s transformation when really it ought to be troublesome. Well, actually it is troublesome but it’s never downright depressing. The scene at the drive-thru window is a particular highlight, when in reality it is a low point in this marriage. A burgeoning romance between Jane and Ricky catches us somewhat off guard. Not to mention, the mood in which this film begins — home video footage revealing a clandestine plan to solve Jane’s problems of being ignored, despite the fact that she’s the only daughter in this broken family — is brilliantly given context later on. (Okay, so really what I’ve just described relates more to direction than the writing but without the sharp dialogue and the delivery thereof, the manipulation of timelines wouldn’t be as effective.)

Looking back on this film is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. American Beauty is so 1990s, and yet times haven’t changed so drastically that its most pressing questions are now foreign to a modern audience. How exactly do we define domestic bliss, and how long does it last? How do we define physical beauty? Is that healthy? How long has the model of the perfect family unit — the house, white picket fence, three kids and a dog — been out of date? I’m quite sure I know none of the answers, but it doesn’t matter because American Beauty doesn’t really either. It may satirize a number of cultural flaws but it doesn’t pretend to have a solution to them. That’s what makes this a classic.

Recommendation: To anyone who hasn’t yet seen American Beauty (I don’t know how many people I’m speaking to here), I urge you to devote two hours out of your day to this extraordinary work. It satisfies on so many levels it’s all but  impossible to name them all. What stood out the most to me were the performances, the writing (specifically the narrative’s ability to maintain a serious dramatic undertone while being incredibly funny simultaneously), and a bold, dramatic conclusion that is brilliantly understated. The perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: The title of the film refers to a breed of roses that while pretty and appealing in appearance, is often prone to rot underneath at the roots and branches of the plant. Thus, the tagline “. . . look closer” tells the viewer that when they look beyond the “perfect suburban life” they will find something rancid at the root.

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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27 thoughts on “TBT: American Beauty (1999)

  1. Pingback: Top That: Ten Actresses Who Clearly Love Their Job | digitalshortbread

  2. Still stands up huh? The backlash on this was pretty severe I recall. Atypical response to a movie that kind of broke the mould. Good for you for telling it how you see it mate.

    • Yeah, apparently it’s still got a fair amount of backlash to deal with. It slightly boggles my mind. I don’t see it as pretentious at all. I see it as an incredibly well-crafted, performed and directed social commentary. Suburban life is obviously more complex than we see it portrayed in films and this is one that really gets to the heart of how complex life gets. Spacey and Bening are way too good here.

      Does it deserve the Best Pic award? I’m not sure, there were a lot of great options that year but even from that point of view, isn’t it amazing that this was Sam Mendes’ directorial debut and he landed 5 Oscars? Just stunning.

        • Ditto, actually. When Ricky was describing how he looked at the world and that all the beauty in it was almost too much for him, I thought that kind of overstepped a line. I kind of rolled my eyes there. 😉

  3. Great review, Tom! Glad you finally got around to this one. 🙂 I love this movie – I remember going to it in the cinema & thinking it was my first proper “grown-up” film. (Even though I was fairly old even then!). It also has one of Thomas Newman’s finest scores. Love him so much! 🙂

    • I love love love this movie. Clearly it’s got its fair share of haters but I don’t mind. I don’t know if any film doesn’t have its detractors, but to me this is such a poignant social commentary and the performances are just off-the-wall good.

      I wish I paid more attention to scores, I don’t actually recall much of it from the movie but I’ll take your word for it Miss Mutey!!! Maybe. . .

      • Oh, Tom! Watch it again & pay attention to the score! 😉 It’s one of Newman’s most instantly recognizable scores. It’s actually quite “in your face” in American Beauty. His stuff is great – love him. 🙂

  4. Great post Tom! I really love this film too and I know people call it pretentious and yeah maybe it is slightly but you simply can’t ignore the brilliant writing and Kevin Spacey’s marvelous performance.

    • I just don’t see where this film can be considered pretentious. I just don’t. But that’s fair, everyone sees things differently. American Beauty is a favorite of mine and I only saw it about a week ago. 🙂

      • I don’t find it pretentious in the least and I can’t even see why anyone would think that, which is probably a lack of imagination on my part, but there you go.
        Maybe the dancing plastic bag? I love that. Finding beauty in the mundane. Which is what I try to do with my photography.

        • I can see certain parts, like that clip of the plastic bag and Ricky explaining how he almost can’t take how much beauty there is in the world. Then he starts to tear up and stuff. I thought that part was a bit much but really, there are far more pretentious pieces of shiite out there. I think Terrence Malick’s work is by definition pretentious. But I still like what he offers. He’s unique

        • Your work does it well. I really love your approach.

          I suppose I see some pretense in the character of Ricky Fitts. His need to video document everything that’s going on around him became a bit grating on my nerves after awhile, but he was a harmless kid after all. The story as a whole wasn’t impacted by that I didn’t think. To each their own, though. If they can’t enjoy American Beauty that’s a shame. 🙂

      • I think that plastic bag thing is slightly but that’s too much of a minute flaw for me and I’d still give it a score of 9+
        Kevin Spacey’s performance in this movie is easily one of my all-time favorite performances

        • I couldn’t argue at all with your valuing of Spacey’s performance. He is simply tremendous in this. I also really really liked Annette Bening despite her character being such a bitch. lol

  5. Nice review Tom, but I really loathe American Beauty. I found Alan Ball’s screenplay to be incredibly smug, pretentious, and shallow and that the midlife crises of of the Burnhams to be not only cliched (between taking a job at a burger stand and undergoing an affair) to be hollow portraits of what’s intended to be characters. I know Beauty has a lot of fans, but it’s one of my least favorite films.

    • Ah, that’s a shame. I find it to be astonishing. I’ve only seen it through once and fairly recently but it’s sitting high on my list of favorites.

  6. Sorry can’t go with you on this movie. I think this movie is pretentious twaddle. It’s not for me that’s for sure

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