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'American Beauty' Is a Victim of Its Own Middlebrow, Mainstream Success

Despite the critical success of American Beauty, it turned out that Sam Mendes was not a wild, idiosyncratic, long-take visionary like P.T. Anderson or Spike Jonze, but rather a strong studio craftsman.

American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper
Studio: DreamWorks
Release Date: 2010-09-21

When American Beauty premiered in the fall of 1999, it arrived in the midst of a miraculous movie year. Spring and summer had already seen the release of Election, Go, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, a new Star Wars movie, The Iron Giant, Bowfinger, Eyes Wide Shut, and The Blair Witch Project, among others, and American Beauty led the charge into a fall and winter that would eventually boast the likes of Three Kings, Fight Club, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, Toy Story 2, Bringing Out the Dead, and more.

From this crowded field, it was Sam Mendes' debut film that would eventually claim the Best Picture Oscar for 1999. Awards also went to Mendes himself, Alan Ball's original screenplay, and Kevin Spacey's lead performance as Lester Burnham, an average suburban schlub who takes charge of his life by quitting his job, smoking pot, mouthing off to his wife (Annette Bening), and lusting after the friend (Mena Suvari) of his teenage daughter (Thora Birch).

Alas, the reputation of American Beauty has not grown much in the ensuing years, while many of its '99 classmates are still regarded as modern classics -- in some cases moreso than at their initial acclaim. Accordingly, American Beauty's release on Blu-Ray doesn't seem to inspire the same fanfare that would greet, say, Magnolia or Being John Malkovich. Among movie nerds, it's a case study in backlashing.

Though outside factors may have contributed to this diminishing (and I'll get to those in moment), the movie itself cannot be discounted. Watching it again many years later, Alan Ball's dialogue does sound, at times, a little smarmy, scoring its points against suburbia with broad, sometimes obvious snark. Bening in particular pushes her character into caricature territory, an easy target for the audience's scorn (though she does, like most of the characters in the film, reveal hidden vulnerabilities -- predictable ones, perhaps, but often touching nonetheless). The character of Ricky Fitz (Wes Bentley), Lester's young neighbor, drug dealer, and love interest for Jane (Birch), spouts a kind of spacey movie-character wisdom that probably plays better the closer you are to his young age.

American Beauty is by no means a bad film, and in fact is quite good; it's funny, tense, ultimately empathetic and, most striking on the Blu-Ray release, beautifully shot by Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall. Mendes and Hall frame their suburban subjects in handsome cages, with glistening reflective surfaces everywhere, chased by spooky flights of fantasy like the rose petals Lester sees whenever he looks at his daughter's nubile friend.

It's the visual storytelling that garners the most attention on the disc's commentary track: Mendes and Ball are both present, but for long passages Ball barely says anything as Mendes rattles off his thoughts on shot choices, compositions, and lighting (as well as the customary kind words for the nuances of the actors, writing, and so forth). At times, it's a bit mechanical, maybe bordering on remedial, to hear Mendes essentially explain what every striking shot in the movie means. But he demonstrates a clear, precise knowledge of filmmaking mechanics; American Beauty not be subtle, but Mendes certainly put his heart and mind into it.

Yet it's Mendes who's often cited as the faux-wunderkind, the central figure in American Beauty's reevaluation and, in some cases, remorse. It turned out that Mendes was not a wild, idiosyncratic, long-take visionary like P.T. Anderson or Spike Jonze, but rather a strong studio craftsman. As other directors wrestled with dream projects -- Jonze, Anderson, and Alexander Payne have made two movies apiece in the past decade -- Mendes buckled down and produced a steady stream of well-wrought mainstream movies that failed to win piles more awards: Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Away We Go. As a result, just about every movie he's ever made has been underrated in some quarters, with the critical disappointment sometimes bordering on resentment.

He's seen, by turns, as superficial, smug, and middlebrow awards-bait (though, strangely, his films also sometimes appear to be punished for not reaping greater awards attention). However, by studiously pointing out Mendes's lack of hipness and supposed pretension, his critics have unfairly sloughed off his gifts: his way with actors, his respect for a wide variety of material, and the visual lushness he brings to human-scale movies not set among rolling hills or shimmering sci-fi cityscapes. Nonetheless, the feeling persists that for 1999, critics and Oscar voters chose the wrong representative.

That sense of betrayal may have poisoned a good chunk of the American Beauty production. Watching it a decade later, we see a parade of unfulfilled promise: Kevin Spacey, who followed his Oscar with an astonishing run of poor choices (Pay It Forward; K-PAX; The Life of David Gale); Thora Birch, who gave an even better performance in Ghost World and has kept a low-profile since; and Wes Bentley, who performed a series of disappearing acts in between low-grade supporting performances in the likes of Ghost Rider.

American Beauty may have won acclaim ten years ago, but it didn't keep winning. In a way, this perfectly enjoyable comedy-drama has been dented by the same drive for superficial success that it satirizes -- however unsubtly.


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