Friday, April 12, 2013

American Beauty (1999)

This movie really divided folks back when it was released in 1999. I remember recommending it to renters in the video store. Some of them coming back loving it and others hating it. At the time, I figured the movie hit a little too close to home, and some viewers were just angry with it. But some time has passed, and maybe I just need to look closer…

Lester Bernham (Kevin Spacey) says the following in the beginning of the film, “My wife and daughter think I’m a loser. And they’re right, I have lost something”. It doesn’t take too long for Lester to be shocked into action. His daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) becomes a vision of Aphrodite for him, and he starts to fanaticize about the teenager. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) can’t seem to catch a break in her real estate business and becomes more frayed by the day. Jane Bernham (Thora Birch) thinks both of her parents are “lameos”. Luckily she meets the boy next store.

The new neighbors are the Fitts. Ricky (Wes Bentley) is a young loner who spends his time selling weed and filming beauty on his camcorder. His father Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is as straight-laced and hard assed as they come. His wife Barbara (Allison Janney) is suffering from some kind of mental fugue, as she wanders the house in a daze.

Both families will warp and change over the next few days, as they come to realize that there is beauty in the world. Sometimes it is on the surface hiding something dark underneath. Other times American Beauty is right in front of you, you’ll only see it if you look closer.

Good Points:
  • Some amazing visuals that tell the story and themes at various levels
  • Excellent cast and acting
  • An innovative score by Thomas Newman

Bad Points:
  • Can be seen as pretentious and artsy
  • Doesn’t tell a new story or reveal a “hidden truth”
  • The slower pace will bore some viewers

I can still see why this will divide some viewers. The message about mid-life crises and futility of suburban life is enough to make some people sick. I still think some folks will see too much of themselves in these characters and take offense. While my enthusiasm for the film has cooled a bit, I still think that the visual style on display and the top-notch acting by a pitch perfect cast makes this well worth seeking out, or revisiting.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Quoth Lester, "I RULE!"
Like so many critically lauded films, American Beauty has become a bit of a punching bag these days. Once it was considered the best film of 1999 and the pinnacle of art cinema of the 1990s. Now I see the film described as a pretentious overrated movie that aspires to tell us this daring truth, but really is telling us that we are all a bunch of delusional morons who need to smoke a few joints, get laid and realize how pointless our middle class lives are. Yeah, I’m not exaggerating the rage here.

But the thing is, these angry folks need to take the films advice, and look closer at American Beauty and realize that there is some amazing cinematic skill on display. Even if you don’t like or agree with the message, doesn’t mean you can dismiss the whole film out of hand.

Director Sam Mendes has been very selective with the films he directs. American Beauty was his first film, and he followed it up with The Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Away we Go and the James Bond flick Skyfall. One common thread in each of these films is the amazing visuals on display. Everything from the lighting, the framing and the camera movement is designed to accentuate the story, enforce the themes and create a mood. You can take any scene in this film and it will tell you several things at once. You don’t see this type of visual attention too often, and it’s always a pleasure when you do.

What she sees is not who we see.
The tagline for the film “Look Closer…” is a running idea for the entire movie. Characters are constantly watching something. We see many close ups of eyes, and have whole scenes where we see Ricky holding his camera, capturing something. At the same time we are watching him, we can see what he is watching on the screen behind him. Lester has several fantasy sequences of Angela. Nearly all of these begin with him staring at her, before he moves for a more physical interaction. Carolyn’s job involves her showing houses to others, and performing for them. Angela is concerned about her physical beauty: her looks. Jane is the same way, feeling she is ordinary compared to her more “beautiful” friend. Characters see what they want to see, but often miss what is really happening. This occurs constantly with Col. Frank. What he sees Ricky doing and what is really happening are quite different.

The infamous scene in American Beauty where Ricky and Jane watch a movie of a bag blowing in the wind delivers the main theme of the film. Ricky calls it the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. He speaks about how beauty is all around us and when you realize it, the feeling overwhelms you. Bentley delivers the lines with such conviction that you believe him. At the same time, many viewers find this whole scene to be so pretentious and ridiculous that they want to throw something at the screen and wring Ricky’s neck.

True beauty, or true pretension?
For some viewers Ricky is just what he appears, a guy who has some emotional issues because his parents are really screwed up. He’s a loser who is selling drugs to school kids, and picking up a girl who is also screwed up. He babbles about beauty, but all he has to show for it is a plastic bag in the wind. It’s a frickin PLASTIC BAG! He calls Mena Suvari ugly, and she’s obviously anything but. In short, the guy is probably going to end up on a short road to nowhere, and the movie is putting him forth as a hero. No thanks.

I kind of get it. But at the same time I see where Ricky is coming from. His dialogue in that scene made sense to me, and I could connect with him. Seeing things in another way can be alienating. It’s difficult because everyone is telling you, you’re wrong. It’s takes courage to say, “What if we looked at it this way?” So many people only see things the way they want to. American Beauty shares this idea with David Lynch’s Lost Highway a couple years before. Lost Highway is about a man who remembers things his way, “Not necessarily the way they happened”. I think a lot of people are like that, and don’t want to see things another way. It’s difficult to handle life as you see it, to imagine life from someone else’s view is too much.

Red on white - colors that repeat during the film
This film is about perspective. Lester’s perspective on his life changes when he sees Angela. Yeah, it’s a full-blown mid life crisis. And yet, in Lester we see a sense of freedom. He’s awake, he’s looking, and he’s seeing the world around him with fresh eyes. Yeah, he’s lusting over a teenaged girl, and he’s trying to recapture a youth that is in the rearview mirror. But the freedom, a very “American” ideal, is the driving force. By the end of the film Lester is at peace with himself. He wants to be happy. He wants his wife and daughter to be happy. He wants to live in this freedom. And the end of the film implies that he keeps that freedom, even after the events in the finale.

Beyond the visuals, the acting is the other key component here. Spacey as Lester and Bening as Carolyn are perfect. Spacey is great at acerbic and disillusioned, and he makes the transformation of Lester a very real one. Bening also balances an intensity and desperation that is believable and pitiful. I always start the film disliking her, but in the end I feel sorry for her, and hope that she’s able to hold onto that moment of freedom that she obtains.

Jane and Ricky watch death drive by
The teenagers also do an excellent job. Birch captures the awkward confused and bitter teenager really well. She was 17 at the time the film was made, so in many ways she was probably playing herself. But it’s an effective performance. Wes Bentley captures the essence of Ricky. I think he projects that confidence and calm of someone who is perfectly comfortable with who he is. The more we see of his life the more we understand him. It’s a good understated performance. Mena Suvari became the poster girl for the film, literally. She was the American Beauty and Mendes makes sure to film her that way. But as the film continues, she shows more than just the shallow self-obsessed girl. The key is she’s just a girl, one that is just as confused as everyone else in this movie.

Last but not least is Chris Cooper as Col. Frank Fitts. It seems like a very superficial character. But we see a lot of levels going on here. The final scenes with him confronting Lester are handled so well. The look in Cooper’s eyes is perfect and does so much for that scene. Re-watching the movie, knowing what is coming, you can see how much Cooper put into the performance. This man has some serious issues, and they are all layered within.

The music by Thomas Newman is a curious beast. I blogged a bit about it here.  It fits the movie like a glove, being both bright and atmospheric when it needs to be. Newman uses some unique instrumentation that on the surface shouldn’t work. But it all does. Combined with some perfect song selections, the musical soundscape of the film works wonders.

What Col. Fitts sees is not what we know.
I’ve mentioned David Lynch once, but there is another of his films that American Beauty is reminiscent of – Blue Velvet. Ok, no one finds an ear in a field and there’s no sign of Dennis Hopper. But the idea of suburbia hiding a dark center was expressed with some visual daring in Lynch’s film. Its opening sequence could be seen as a perfect metaphor for American Beauty, with it’s perfect roses hiding the writhing black insects underneath. Blue Velvet came out in 1986 and was hardly the first film to tackle suburban dystopia. So it’s no wonder that some people feel that American Beauty is old hat.

No the message is not new. Even the images aren’t new. But what is new is the concept of watching and looking. 1999 saw the advent of another film that focused on watching and seeing. The truth was sought and the perspective was from a hand held camera. The Blair Witch Project used its footage to show the truth of what happened to those who sought the truth. American Beauty does something very similar. Ricky’s camera captures the true beauty, even if it may not be immediately apparent.  It’s interesting to see how the use of the handheld camera as an image of perspective would really become popular in the 2000s, after both these films got the concept rolling.

I don’t like the word pretentious. It is thrown around without much thought. I always get the feeling that if someone doesn’t’ like the message of something they use that word to put down the creator. Pretention implies that the creator is out to make a grand statement that he or she feels you need to know for your own good. The only way to do this is to talk down to you. But like everything else, pretention is in the eye of the beholder.

Lester gazed upon an American Beauty
Is American Beauty pretentious? You could make a fair argument for it. There are times where it feels that the visual cues and repeated imagery are utilized to hammer in the message of “Your life is a lie. Realize this and be free”. If you take these characters as stereotypes meant to represent all suburban dwellers, than I can see how this can come across as Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball trying to smack some sense into viewers.

But that assumes that they aren’t just telling a story about two families during a time of change. For me the message is: you can’t be happy until you are at peace with yourself and your life. Ricky is the only character who is happy with his life (for the most part). Each character gets a taste of that peace (except for Col Fitts and his wife). It takes a moment of contemplation, to see yourself from another point of view and understand that maybe, just maybe, what is the social norm is not the key to happiness for everyone.

This scene offers many perspectives
Is the film selling selfishness as the route to happiness? I don’t think so. Lester cares about his family. You can see it in his eyes, in his reactions to the things they do. He wants Jane to be happy. He wants Carolyn to be happy. But he’s still coming to grips with his change. Given a bit more time, I think the whole thing could have worked out. People can coexist, but they have to be honest with themselves. They have to know what they want and what they are. They have to be willing to tell others. And of they find someone who understands and wants the same things – well then we can all be happy. Is wanting a happy, peaceful life selfish?

I used to love this movie. This was back when I really loved art films and thought I knew more than any one else. I’m older now, and realize I don’t know much at all, and I know there’s a place for art films and place for popcorn flicks. American Beauty is a very good film, but misses greatness for me. Its got a bit of a dark sense of humor to it, and that makes it entertaining. But it does feel a bit heavy on the delivery of the message over the telling of the story. It makes the film feel heavy-handed at times, and the methodical pacing isn’t completely warranted in all aspects. For a first time film director, it’s an impressive feat. It also showed us Mendes two great strengths were apparent from the beginning – strong visuals and the ability to get great performances out of his actors.

The red door hides many secrets. Look closer...
What is interesting to me, from a historical perspective, is that American Beauty was a last hurrah for the popularity for the arty dramatic film. The 1990s were a heyday for the major studios to try telling stories that were unique, independent and artistic. It was the decade where Shakespeare was popular in theatrical release. It was the decade that gave us the surprise of Pulp Fiction, the horror of Seven and the joyful sadness of Boogie Nights. In many ways American Beauty was the culmination of that. The 2000s swung the pendulum back over to big budget crowd pleasers that focused less on characters and themes, and more on stars and special effects. Major studios bought up the independent studios, saturated the market with quirky, and burned viewers out. Then they closed down those wings, unless they wanted some Oscar bait. So for me American Beauty holds a bit of sadness. It was the beginning of the end for this type of film. Of course the pendulum will swing again.

 So where does this leave us? American Beauty is a well made movie with a message. It wasn’t a game changer, or a milestone of cinema. But it also isn’t a pretentious blowhard of a film that hates its viewers. It’s a movie about perspective, and it requires that you look a little closer.


  1. “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” – Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

    Our assessments do evolve over time, and not always in predictable directions.

    I remember Roger Ebert saying at Oscar time that, while he liked the movie, the fact that “American Beauty” was Best Picture was a comment on the weakness of the field in 1999. I know what he meant. I like this pic, too, but not so much that I intend to see it again – which is my standard for films I love. I might in fact watch it again some night (depending on the weakness of the field on satellite), but I’m not likely deliberately to seek it out.

    Is the movie pretentious? Yes, but that’s OK. It’s pretentious in the way that so much coffee house beat poetry was pretentious, or that the young Dylan was pretentious. The film, the Beats, and Dylan are cool anyway. If the artists seem to look down on us, their (entirely conscious) pretension invites us to look down on them – it’s a wash, but the art, poetry, and music remain. (I had something like this in mind when naming own blog site “Richard’s Pretension.”) The would-be gurus who are clueless about their own pretentiousness are the ones who inspire eye-rolls.

    There is a lot going on in this movie: sexual repression, false expectations, materialism, sublimated anger, and more – all of which lead to ugliness. But there is also beauty both in expected and unexpected places, including in that plastic bag, however puffed up by pretension it might be.

    So, yes, I like it, too, but, like you, I see why some viewers wouldn’t – especially those for whom, as you say, the film seems too much like home.

    1. I love your definition of "pretension". That pretty much fits my thoughts on it too. :) As I mentioned I see that term thrown around a lot, but I don't think it's warranted in all those cases. It's up there with "over-rated" and "under-rated". I think over-appreciated works a little better.

      What is surprising to me is the real anger I see in comments and reviews of this movie (more-so now then when it was released). "American Beauty" really ticks some people off!