All My Movies: American Beauty

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American Beauty
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening
Costarring: Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney
Times Watched: In the 7-10 range
Genre: Drama / Black Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes / Metacritic: 88% / 86

Road To Ownership: I remember there being this endless pool of buzz about this movie when it came out. My sister and I were late to the party, but loved it. I bought it as a two-pack with Almost Famous several years later. Unsurprisingly, when the boyfriend and I combined movie collections, this was a double.

The Plot: Lester Burnham is going through a mid-life crisis. His marriage is a sham, his uptight wife Caroline forever obsessed with image over substance. His daughter Jane won’t speak to him, as she becomes involved with their new drug dealing neighbour. And his job is a total joke, and ready to boot him out the door. So he does whatever he wants. He yells at his wife, he tries to reach out to his daughter (and by extension, harbours an intense crush on her friend Angela), quits his job, and basically starts living – in a series of events that ultimately leads to his death. That’s not a spoiler by the way, it’s established in the opening scene that he’ll be dead by the end of the film.

The Good & The Bad: When you’ve watched this movie – or any movie, really – frequently enough, you begin to stop getting absorbed in the story and instead start slotting in the scenes in your head. You know each scene so well, you’re already thinking ahead to the next one, versus being as immersed in the dialogue and action of the current one. So, admittedly, last night’s viewing wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the first few thrilling times I watched the movie.

That being said, the fact I’ve watched this movie as often as I have is a testament to its quality. The casting and performances are pitch perfect, with a well-deserved Oscar win for Kevin Spacey. Every single character is just so ‘right’ (including the heartbreaking performance by Allison Janney), but in an almost cartoonish satirical way. Actually watching this movie now reminded me of the first (brilliant) season of Desperate Housewives, with Caroline being the proxy for Bree Van De Kamp. It’s also nice to see a small, smart film get such honours. In regards to that, the writing is pretty solid. It’s a clever mixture of black, glib comedy and heartbreaking delivery (particularly in the house of Fitts). The thing I appreciate about this film is the fact that every scene is meaningful in the overall conclusion of the film. It’s a backwards murder mystery with an incredibly surprising but not out-of-character result. The fact that Mendes is wise enough to leave some things out (via dialogue) and let you see them via Ricky’s camera is also a brilliant choice in a film that’s all about misguided perceptions.

And lets circle back to Mendes, a favourite director of mine and the boyfriend’s (in fact we own all his films). His cinematic style is developed here with the slow-moving zooms, a likely product of his background in theatre where you are always taking in the whole scene versus close-ups. The imagery is stunning throughout, particularly the continued symbolic use of the colour red and the roses. And Thomas Newman’s brilliant score, one of the best in recent cinematic history, punctuates every scene perfectly. In fact I’m flabbergasted Newman didn’t win best score at the Oscars. Who remembers the Red Violin score? NO ONE. Anyway, the harmony of beautiful, unique cinematography with the pitch perfect score makes a small movie become a sensational one, especially in the final montage of whodunit scenes.

There are a few notes for improvement of course. Many people mock the plastic bag video scene, and to be fair, Ricky’s acting in it is pretty stilted, ‘So-much-beauty’. Also the large gap without Angela makes Lester’s behaviour sort of random when you’re originally led to believe he’s doing what he’s doing to attract her. And upon rewatching the film at an older age, I found Ricky’s behaviour downright scary. I always found him a bit creepy, but if I were Jane I wouldn’t be gobbling it up, nor would I run away to New York with him.

Best Scene: I’ve always enjoyed the scene when Caroline comes home to find Lester has sold his Corolla for a Firebird and gets her foot run over by a remote control car. ‘I Rule!’

Worst Scene: Although I find the score and the video of the bag enticing, the writing in the plastic bag scene is terrible, and Ricky has no hope of delivering it particularly convincingly.

Best Character: Although her part is decidedly small, I’m tempted to say Allison Janney. I think she’s the unsung portrait of what life in the Fitts household is like. Really though, every character is fantastic.

Worst Character: Peter Gallagher as Buddy, the real estate king. Those eyebrows! That smarminess! Although well played, I feel squeamish when he’s on screen.

Soundtrack of our Lives: One of the best scores in motion picture history. Beyond that, a bunch of suitable Americana classics that are used in memorable ways.

If You Like This You’ll Like: Road to Perdition (also by Sam Mendes and Thomas Newman), Life As A House (a bit more heavy on the sentiment), and season 1 of Desperate Housewives.

FINAL GRADE: 5/5

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