DVD Reviews - American Beauty

      Date posted: April 29, 2001

American Beauty
Sam Mendes, Director; Alan Ball, Writer; DreamWorks Home Entertainment; Anamorphic Widescreen 2.5:1; Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1, English Subtitles & Captions; 122 Minutes

American Beauty

      If Love And Basketball is about upwardly mobile slam dunking by black families, American Beauty is a heart-chillingly funny look at totally dysfunctional white ones. Kevin is definitely Spacey, as he angsts his way through mid-life, and Annette Bening even moreso as his wife Carolyn, a dissociated real estate dealer. And to set off the degeneration of this marriage even more, a series of events occurs throughout the film to lead to the inevitable tragedy at the end.

     However, by having Spacey’s character, Lester, reveal his own fate at the beginning, the tragedy is turned into a fascinating ironic comedy, in which the children are more adult than their parents, and certainly less psychotic. I don’t want to give away too much of American Beauty’s plot, but part of the spice, as Spacey gets spacier, is provided by the neighbours in this suburban hell, a gay male couple on one side, and a homophobic, gun-collecting ex-Marine and his video-voyeur teenage son on the other. Of course, the former family is normal, friendly, and generous, while the latter one, with a “There, there, dear” mother between hardboiled father and sensitive son (who also deals drugs), is dysfunctional to a possibly deadly degree.
It’s easy to see why this film won so many awards, including 5 Oscars, because the ensemble acting is so powerful that you remain riveted to the screen for the full two hours. And Lester’s growing obsession with and graphic fantasies about his daughter’s cheerleader friend add to the plot. And Peter Gallagher’s cameo as a real-estate supersalesman with whom Carolyn has an affair is very creepy and funny.

     American Beauty just crackles with larger-than-life characters, Ball’s script giving them lots to chew on and spit out. Director Sam Mendes’ comments about reading the script are worth quoting: “The strange thing was that at each reading the script seemed to be something else. It was a highly inventive black comedy. It was a mystery story with a genuine final twist. It was a kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia, and a highly visually articulate one at that. It was a series of love stories…” It’s these things and more, and the resulting movie Mendes has crafted is brilliant in its flashing facets of ambiguity that come down to one question in the end: who killed Lester?

      Special Features: A Look Closer is astonishing in that it appears that the cast of the film seems to have had a lot of fun playing people who don’t have a lot of fun. At least that’s what the footage shows, as director and crew coach the audience for the cheerleaders, and discuss the making of American Beauty. Writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes talk about the synergy of their working together, noting that Mendes’ stage experience contributes greatly to his first film project, and this is echoed by Bening and Spacey, who both come from stage backgrounds. There are a lot of insights in this featurette, particularly Spacey’s comments about Lester’s finding his sense of humour and getting inside life so he can bear it.
Other extras include commentary by Mendes and Ball over the film’s length (I can almost never find time to sit through these), storyboard and screenplay presentations, and a pair of theatrical trailers that are very good.

Andrew Marshall

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