Since 1999's "American Beauty" is thoughtful, poignant, provocative, horrifying, and occasionally sardonically funny, it's good to see DreamWorks transfer it to DVD. While I'm not entirely sure the movie deserved winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), and Best Screenplay (Alan Ball), I'd say it was at least close. It's a good little film.
Of course, it's not a film you might want to recommend to your maiden aunt in River City. "The Music Man" it ain't. The movie is quite frank and may well offend many viewers, rated R for sexual situations, nudity, profanity, and violence. But its perceptive jabs at modern dysfunctional families, small-minded bigotry, selfishness, self-indulgence, self-absorption, cruelty, indifference, and bourgeois rage are worthy targets for screen satire. And when the film winds up with as sincere an appeal as this film does to not take life for granted, it makes an enormous impact on one's spirit. Its appearance in an excellent DVD transfer from DreamWorks earns it a clear recommendation.
With his unique style of cynical, resigned, deadpan delivery, Kevin Spacey is perfectly cast as the middle-aged suburbanite, Lester Burnham, who feels himself trapped by family and job, lost and empty. He will die shortly, he tells us at the beginning of the film, but "in a way I'm dead already." Lester's job in the city is a no-win proposition. He is merely a cog in the wheel, a piece of the machine that must produce the right statistical numbers. He is about to be fired. His distant, domineering, compulsive wife, Carolyn, played by Annette Bening, is wrapped up her work as a real-estate agent, a pursuit that consumes her time and energy and at which she is completely inept. Her escapes are a perfectly arranged house and garden, perfectly arranged meals, perfectly arranged furniture, and a perfectly arranged affair with a perfectly arranged real-estate rival, Buddy Kane, played by Peter Gallagher.
All of which leaves Lester alone and unwelcome. Lester's angry, rebellious daughter, Jane, played by Thora Birch, hates his guts and hasn't spoken to him in years. Lester can't remember when they stopped talking or when either of them stopped caring. Jane's best friend is a gorgeous and seemingly promiscuous cheerleader, an American beauty, Angela Hayes, played by Mena Suvari, about whom Lester fantasizes endlessly.
Into Lester's neighborhood moves a family even stranger than his own, the Fittses. Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the teenage son in the family, is a loner, at first resembling a creepy Norman Bates but later revealing himself as the most sensitive, self-assured, and perceptive person in the story. It is he who helps Jane, and Lester, see and appreciate the beauty of the world. Ricky's father, however, is a rigid Marine colonel, Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), whose emotions become ever more clouded as the movie goes on. Living down the street are a contented gay couple, Jim and Jim (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards), whose presence on the block hardly endears them to the uptight Colonel. The movie suggests that Fitts's homophobic wrath may be a manifestation of his own ambiguous sexual feelings. Ricky's mother, played by Allison Janney, is perhaps the most pathetic figure of all, living in a world apart, dehumanized by the brutality of her husband.
The movie uses much the same symbology as Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," despite the vast differences in their time and place. The stories unfold in many-layered fashion, much as a flower might shed its petals. As each petal falls, the more is revealed, until in both instances the tales reach a shocking yet exquisitely beautiful conclusion. Lester's turning point comes when he is finally inspired to escape his meaningless existence and become a new man. He quits his job, buys the car of his dreams (a 1970 red Pontiac Firebird), almost drips beer on the furniture, demands different music at the dinner table, begins rebuilding his body, and attempts to seduce his daughter's female friend.
Like Hemingway's Francis Macomber, Lester's new life is short and happy. He and we come to recognize what Lester had been missing all along--the sense of joy in every moment of being. It's Wilder's "Our Town" for a new millennium. Just as Ricky's explanation of the importance of a plastic bag blowing in the wind may touch our soul, so may Lester's closing narration grab our hearts. The movie, despite its exaggerations and caricatures, does grip you, ever so slowly at first, and pull you in, imparting a minor revelation at every turn. As I say, a good film.
Befitting a good motion picture, DreamWorks provide a good image. It is well defined and brilliantly colored, with only traces of line flutter and minor grain to interfere with the illusion of absolute reality. The spacious, 2.35:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen also helps considerably in conveying the Panavision theatrical experience.
The audio is pretty much as we might expect it to be in a film like this, and more. At startup, one chooses Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1. In either case, there isn't a lot of need for the rear channels except for minor musical ambiance enhancement; but the sound is ultra-clear, and there is an enormous deep bass response that comes as a pleasant surprise and helps underline several key plot elements.
The cover jacket claims "over three hours of bonus features," a statement that seemed at first reading something of a stretch. There is a full-feature audio commentary with director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball, which, of course, requires a second viewing of the movie, but I doubt that DreamWorks were counting this time in their three hours. The featurette on the disc, "American Beauty: Look Closer...," is about twenty-two minutes long, not terribly revealing, mostly hype, but entertaining. Then there is a storyboard presentation, which I admit I didn't get all the way through, comprised of over 130 storyboard drawings compared to actual screen shots, with commentary by Mendes and director of photography Conrad Hall; this in itself would take quite a while to view. And there are cast and crew biographies, some production notes, two widescreen trailers, a booklet essay by the director, and twenty-eight scene selections.
Additionally, if you have a DVD-ROM player in your PC, you can access the screenplay with corresponding film footage. OK, it probably does all add up to over three extra hours. In fact, probably quite a bit more. Oddly, DreamWorks leave out any concessions to non-English speakers; English is the only spoken language provided, and English is the only available captioning.
In "Walden," Henry David Thoreau wrote, "I wished to live deliberately...and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Lester Burnham makes the discovery belatedly that he had not been living for quite some time and determines to change the course of his life. Perhaps most of us never make the discovery at all. "American Beauty" has the distinction of appealing to our minds and our emotions alike, with no undue conflict between the two. Its characters may be stereotypes, but they are stereotypes in the best traditions of black comedy. "American Beauty" is humorous, distressing, heartfelt, and uplifting. It's mostly entertaining, too.