Rarely could you go anywhere in 1999 without hearing about American Beauty. The modestly budgeted film went on to gross more than $350 million dollars worldwide—not a bad return for a film that cost a mere $15 million to make. The film only continued to grow in popularity when months later it garnered over half a dozen Oscar nominations (five of which it won—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor). Though I was more obsessed with the resurgence of Star Wars at that point, even as a twelve year old I thought the constant discussion of American Beauty would never end—and now here I am talking about it, eleven years later.
Noted theater director Sam Mendes, who was responsible for the acclaimed 1998 revival of Cabaret and Nicole Kidman’s turn in The Blue Room, made his motion picture debut with this film about the dark side of an American family, and about the nature and price of beauty in a culture obsessed with outward appearances. Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a man in his mid-40s going through an intense midlife crisis; he’s grown cynical and is convinced that he has no reason to go on. Lester’s relationship with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is not a warm one; while on the surface Carolyn strives to present the image that she’s in full control of her life, inside she feels empty and desperate. Their teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is constantly depressed, lacking in self-esteem, and convinced that she’s unattractive. Her problems aren’t helped by her best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), an aspiring model who is quite beautiful and believes that that alone makes her a worthwhile person. Jane isn’t the only one who has noticed that Angela is attractive: Lester has fallen into uncontrollable lust for her, and she becomes part of his drastic plan to change his body and change his life. Meanwhile, next door, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) has spent a lifetime in the Marine Corps and can understand and tolerate no other way of life, which makes life difficult for his son Ricky (Wes Bentley), an aspiring filmmaker and part-time drug dealer who is obsessed with beauty, wherever and whatever it may be. American Beauty was also the screen debut for screenwriter Alan Ball.
At first I wasn’t sure why this film was so critically acclaimed—it seemed like another film about the suburban life not being as wondrous as it seems. Then I realized that this was probably the film that caused the influx of such films the past decade, so that explains those initial reactions I had to it. As the film went on I found myself incredibly wrapped up with all of the characters—it’s a pretty meaty cast and yet everyone has just enough screen time to help you feel connected with them by the time the credits roll. While the film does end on a bit of a “what…?” moment, after reading up on how it could have ended (and started out as), I was a lot more pleased with its slightly ambiguous ending.
Moving past the multi-tiered and layered story, the real highlight of the film is its cast and what they bring to the screen. Spacey definitely earned his Oscar for this film, as he delivered one of the best mixed performances I’ve ever seen. The sheer disappointment and indignation in his eyes as he prepares for and goes to work is extraordinary. Once he breaks free of that though it’s clear a weight has been lifted—though that could be the weed he’s been smoking, it’s more likely just that he is no longer burdened by his mundane life. He’s able to drive the car he wants (although we oddly never even see him in it), he gets a job at a restaurant to occupy his downtime and he just generally seems to start leading a much more enjoyable life. This does upset the balance in the household of course, but it is kind of the catalyst behind the entire story. More than anything the film is a character study of how much chaos can be caused by a man quitting his job and deciding to do what makes him happy.
Overall by now American Beauty is considered a modern classic (as designated by Paramount offering it up a position in their revered [or something] Sapphire Series). While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a classic, it is definitely a Recommended film. It still manages to hold up, although I’m not sure how good repeat viewings would go now—once you know the whole hook of the story and how it ends, it kind of loses its luster. Which I guess is a parallel to getting a house in the suburbs.
The Sapphire Series from Paramount got off to a rocky start when Gladiator came out with such a lackluster video transfer and then the Saving Private Ryan release had a botched audio mix (although I never experienced it with my setup, thousands of others did). For American Beauty the presentation isn’t quite as grandiose as the aforementioned film, but the movie itself arrives in a single disc Elite Blu-ray case with the reflective foil/embossed slipcover making itself noticed on the shelf. Inside the case is the disc with a grey wash disc art and nothing else but a few pieces of paper. While the prospect of a Sapphire Series release is exciting, I’m sure, keep in mind there is nothing new here except the A/V transfer—the extras remain identical to the previous release.
The AVC encoded film makes suburban life look as thrilling as it possibly can, although the main draw here will be of course how vibrant the rose petal sequences contrast with the rest of the imagery. Thankfully the majority of this transfer looks impeccable; with a nice grain haze that is so common amongst 90s films and plenty of nicely detailed indoor and outdoor sequences. You’re reminded of just how detailed Blu-ray can get during the rain sequence, as soaked clothes and water droplets fill the screen. Of course the rose petals are also well done, with the most vibrant of the scene being the same one that adorns the cover art.
Audio is a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix but considering it’s a film about the suburbs (how many more times can I type that?), you’d be right in expecting not a whole lot of thrilling channel switching. It’s a very straightforward mix, mostly in the front channels, with the only real surround and LFE output coming from the cheer sequence in the stadium. Overall though it’s a very solid mix regardless and definitely does what it can with the material.
• Commentary with Director Sam Mendes and Screenwriter Alan Ball
• American Beauty Look Closer…
• Storyboard Presentation with Sam Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad L. Hall
• Trailers: – 2 Theatrical Trailers HD
As previously mentioned these are the same extras as the previous DVD release, so nothing new to see here unfortunately. Still a Recommended release if you don’t already own the previous DVD release, but unlike other Sapphire releases you won’t gain much by upgrading to this edition.
American Beauty arrives on Blu-ray on September 21st.