American Beauty (1999)

One of 1999’s finest movies, Sam Mendes’ debut feature captures the angst and desires of a family imploding from within, but not without some sublime acting on display.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Sam Mendes
1999 | USA | Drama | 122 mins | 2.35:1 | English 
M18 (passed clean) for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Allison Janney, Chris Cooper
Plot: A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.
Awards: Won 5 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography. Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Leading Actress, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score. Won People’s Choice Award (Toronto)
Source: United International Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Review #1,724

(Reviewed on DVD)

Spoilers: No

A deserving winner of the Best Picture Oscar, American Beauty was not just one of 1999’s finest movies, but still arguably Sam Mendes’ best work of his career.  Yet, it is hard to believe that it was only his first feature film.

Starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as a couple who are slowly drifting apart, American Beauty charts the warning signs of a family imploding from within. Despite some disturbing and mature material in an excellently-written script, one could see Mendes’ film as a kind of black comedy that is funny because it balances serious drama with some flourishes of whimsy.

“It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about.”

It is dark yet light-hearted at the same time, and it is this difficult tonal balance that has been seemingly easily achieved, not without the help of Thomas Newman’s playful if intuitive score, that makes the movie such an engaging piece on mid-life crises, angst and desires of these suburban characters.

Bening gives a superb performance as the wife who is increasingly frustrated by her husband’s eccentric antics, but who tries to distract herself with work as a struggling property agent and a potential extramarital affair.  Spacey plays the husband who finds a new lease of life when he meets his daughter’s flirtatious schoolmate and fantasises about her.

It’s difficult now to see Spacey’s Oscar-winning performance, as extraordinary as it is, as purely an act, after allegedly been accused of sexual assault in recent times.  It can even be a turn-off for those intending to revisit the film.  But truth be told, I’m of the view that there is a time and place for the discussion of these things, and not at the expense of a great film.

“I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary.”

American Beauty does not just feature sublime acting by the cast, but somehow the narrative manages to take in the bits and pieces of each character’s personality which somehow make up a sort of cinematic quilt.  We are literally looking at the fabric of a community—the rabble-rousing lead family, the eccentric neighbours (not without deep-seated problems of their own), and the town itself, as unexciting as it is.

Though as one of the characters with a camcorder would attest, there is beauty in the smallest, insignificant of things, only if we know where to look.  But very often, our brains seem only competent enough to pick out the worst in people.

Grade: A




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