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American Beauty - The Awards Edition

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Review by Jeremy Kleinman | posted October 17, 2000 | E-mail the Author
The Movie
"American Beauty" is an extremely enigmatic film. Unquestionably the most critically acclaimed film and an unstoppable force at the Oscars, "American Beauty" is nevertheless not a traditionally enjoyable film. While the film is filled with compelling characters, amazing performances, breathtaking cinematography and an impressive sense of realism the film is somewhat disturbing and can leave the viewer a bit feeling a bit uneasy throughout the viewing of the film and after. The film's "tag line" is itself enigmatic, suggesting that the viewer "look closer." While telling the complete story of the transformation of the film's central character, the film seems to leave the viewer with more questions than answers as to the meaning of film's climax and much of its imagery. Perhaps most striking are the film's various explorations of what constitutes "beauty." The film itself is often a bizarre blend of haunting and beauty and constantly compels the viewer to seek to "look closer" to understand and appreciate what is being expressed. Thankfully, that is exactly what this DVD allows the viewer to do. Complete with a 20 minute documentary and feature-length commentary by Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball, the viewer is richly rewarded by this fine DVD.

"American Beauty" is the story of what initially seems like a typical white upper-middle class suburbanite family. While the family seems somewhat normal at first glance, a closer look elucidates the many problems that each member of the family, along with those around them experience. The film's narrator and protagonist, Lester Burnham, played magnificently by Kevin Spacey slowly realizes the tremendous chasm between his current life and his notions of happiness and self. He subsequently becomes intoxicated with the desire to effect changes in his life to seek out the happiness that has seemed to have evade him for a number of years. An encounter exposing Lester to an unexpected fantastical representation of beauty literally pulls Lester from his former life and sets him onto a path of the pursuit of a happiness which is totally at odds with his former self and societal expectations of him. Following this path causes a transformation in Lester as he seems to envelop himself with the beauty and joy of his life and dreams which had previously eluded him.

. While the film is primarily Lester's story, Mendes and Ball are not satisfied simply taking the viewer on Lester's journey alone. The viewer is taken intimately into Carolyn's life as well, treated to a true showing of her internal pain and suffering hiding under the smile she constantly forces onto her lips. Rather than simply paint her as the domineering, social climbing bitch of a wife that would easily seem to play a major role in Lester's initial subjugation, Carolyn is portrayed with a great amount of complexity and is, in her own right, an extremely compelling character. Further, instead of just letting the character of Jane, the couple's daughter serve merely as a conduit for her father's visualization of his own fantasy, she too is painted with complex brushstrokes, as she comes to terms with her friendship with her extremely attractive friend Angela, and avoids remaining in Angela's shadow. In addition, she goes through her own transformation, becoming an object of beauty to Ricky, her somewhat strange neighbor who obsessively films whatever he sees in search for unconventional beauty. As the two grow closer, they seem to draw out each other's beauty and experience a truly interesting relationship that at times is difficult to understand, but is an unexpected treat in this film, nonetheless.

All of these characters in Ball's screenplay are made even more intriguing, multidimensional and real by tremendous performances by nearly every member of the cast. Few films are fortunate enough to get such great performances from such a great ensemble. Spacey and Bening both put in the performances of their truly fine careers, and relative newcomers Thora Birch and Wes Bentley offer unexpectedly impressive realizations of their characters. While Spacey and Bening have made their careers from tackling complex and multi-faceted characters, Bentley and Birch rise to the task with an ease that belies the short length of their careers. Rounding out an incredible cast is Mena Suvari, of "American Pie" as Angela, and Allison Janney (C.J. from "The West Wing," although difficult to recognize here) and Chris Cooper as Ricky's parents. Although his character is often extremely hard to like, one must simply marvel at the strength of Cooper's performance here. Indeed, tremendous credit must be given to Mendes, a theatrical director for truly getting the best possible performances from his characters.

While this film is strongly supported by the complexity of its characters and the greatness of the actors and actresses' performances, "American Beauty" is made even better by the wonderful cinematography that is impressive throughout the film and a handful of enjoyable, comical scenes. It is truly remarkable, but each of the scenes in which one of the characters finds the beauty of a part of themselves that they had not previously seen, shows the impressive gift for storytelling that Ball and Mendes possess and is in its own right exhilarating.

As good a film as this is, it is not necessarily for everyone. While this is a truly remarkable film, it is not always an enjoyable film. There are a couple of scenes of violence which are extremely difficult to take, largely because of their intensity above and beyond the intensity that is present throughout much of the film. While there are a decent number of comedic moments along Lester's journey of transformation, this is not a light-hearted film or one that offers simple escapist fun. Instead, it seems to pull the viewer in a bit too much, often a bit disturbing and confusing. Simply put, this film presents the viewer with a challenge. This, however, is the sign of a great movie, as viewers are often deprived of such a challenge by the majority of movies being released today. The reaction this film engenders is not so different from that caused by "Fight Club," another film which some people loved, some people hated and many, many watched a second or third time seeking the answers that eluded them during the first viewing. Indeed, in this film, if the viewer is up to the challenge to look closer, this film, like Fight Club is richly rewarding.

The Picture

"American Beauty" is wonderfully presented in Anamporphic Widescreen, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film looks great and the digital transfer really showcases the wonderful cinematography of the film. The fleshtones appear to be quite true. There are a few imperfections in the film, such as an occasional speck showing up on the transfer, but these are only the mildest diversions from a visually impressive picture. Further, it is unclear whether such imperfections are part of the digital transfer or the film itself.

The Sound

"American Beauty" contains both a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound and a 5.1 DTS Surround Sound track. The sound transfer is fantastic in both modes. While the DTS sound is truly superior and impressive, the Dolby Digital sound does not leave the viewer needing anything better. The dialogue, music, and sound effects are all quite clear, and the viewer need not adjust the volume at any time to enjoy this film.

Bonus Materials

The "Awards Edition" DVD is well-stocked with extra features. The DVD contains feature-length commentary by writer Alan Ball and Director Sam Mendes, "Look Closer" a 20- Minute Behind the Scenes featurette, an hour-long Storyboard to film presentation with Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad Hall, two trailers for the film; cast and crew bios; and some fairly extensive Production notes, in addition to some DVD-ROM features.

While the materials provided really help the viewer to "Look Closer" into the film, in the first few moments of the commentary, it becomes clear what was not included. A much discussed alternate ending and opening scene cut from the film, mentioned by Director Sam Mendes are not included on the DVD. This is extremely unfortunate, because, the alternate ending is quite different from that which ended up in the movie and sounds as if it would be quite intriguing. That being said, however, the feature-length commentary is fantastic. While Mendes does a bit more of the talking than Ball, the two really go into the imagery used in the film, the process of making the film, and the various ideas the two had and the pains taken to make these ideas a reality in the film. There are few lengthy pauses during the film, and the discussion is frequently quite interesting. With a film which truly leaves more questions than answers, it is nice to get some of those questions answered from the creative source of the film. Indeed many of the enigmatic ways in which the film and its characters are taken down their paths get a bit more explanation, and ultimately, this provides the viewer with a greater appreciation for the film and the deep artistic expression therein. Still, Mendes and Ball do not try to provide the viewer with all the answers, still leaving the viewer to find their own version of the truth and beauty of the film in their own way.

Also quite enjoyable is the storyboard to film hour long discussion. The feature shows three storyboards and three cells from the film, while Mendes and Hall talk for a while about what was intended, why they might have taken a different route and what it was like to film the scene. The two discuss a number of storyboards during the first half of the film, examining the major plot lines of the story. Perhaps the most saddening thing about this feature is that the discussion ends roughly two thirds of the way into the film. This allows the viewer to delve a bit deeper into the film and, together with the commentary, provides a rich record of the process of making this film and the ideas and notions which drive the film.
Finally, the documentary is an enjoyable look at the acclaim the film has received, the actors' view of the film and the process of making it, the meaning of various themes in the film, the admiration the actors have for each other and their first-time director, and the genuine fun they had making this film. Worth the time to watch this on its own is seeing Kevin Spacey doing a cheerleader pom-pom routine. The documentary features Steven Spielberg, one of the founders of Dreamworks Pictures who gushes about the genius of this film and Mendes. It is a nice addition to round out the special features on this DVD.

Final Thoughts

This is an awe inspiring film. While some of the film's notions of beauty may seem difficult to comprehend, the confluence of these notions, the cinematography of the film and some truly incredible performances renders this film a truly beautiful film that only improves with successive viewings. The performances in this film are incredible and the richness and depth of the film comes through to create an incredible, compelling film. The "Awards Version" DVD was definitely worth the wait. Further, while DVD buyers are now beginning to be besieged by many of the big summer blockbusters, this film offers a tremendous contrast. It is a wonderful film that will leave the viewer taking in the meaning of the film long after the film has ended. While Oscar voters can often seem to be a bit off the mark, passing over more unconventional films of remarkable splendor in favor of big period pieces or the films of big directors, repeated viewings of American Beauty will suggest that they really got this one right.

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