Thursday, May 14, 2015

Do You Ever Feel Like A Plastic Bag?

Year: 1999
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Thora Birch, Annette Bening
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Happy families are all alike. But unhappy family movies are even more alike.

The meltdown of the nuclear family is perhaps the most commonly explored theme in contemporary American filmmaking. To stand out, one's film must have something more to offer than a mere subversion of the American Dream. After all, nothing is worse than being ordinary.

In its way, American Beauty does accomplish this, mainly by being one of the most technically flawless films to come out of the 1990's. As an example of textbook-precise filmmaking, look no further than Sam Mendes' directorial debut, for which he must have carefully studied every popular filmmaking technique in the industry, tossing in a few creative strokes of his own for good measure.

But a perfect machine only runs perfectly on the right fuel, and in filmmaking this means a proper script. American Beauty's screenplay is far from being an Uwe Boll napkin scribble, but at times it indulges itself in layers of pretention that would make even Richard Kelly weep with jealousy.

Although in a Richard Kelly movie, this bath would be a portal to the sub-universe of forgotten names or something.

American Beauty, as if you weren't already aware, is about Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged father who works at a thankless job and lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood with his unsuccessful realtor wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and his surly teen daughter Jane (Thora Birch). His boring, plodding life begins to change when he develops a crush on his daughter's friend Angela (Mena Suvari). His ichor burning bright, he lets loose and begins pursuing his wildest desires like quitting his job, working out, smoking pot, getting a sports car, and mid-life crisising all the way to the bank.

American Beauty (which is named for a beautiful variety of rose that is prone to rot at the roots - ooh, portentous) is a film all about the strict rules we manage ourselves by in order to maintain our own superficial feelings of success, and what happens when those rules are exposed for the intangible artifice that they are. As Lester breaks free from those bonds, his acting out has a ripple effect, distorting the rules for everyone in his vicinity.

It's interesting, to say the least. Exposing the dark underbelly of suburbia is something that many of my favorite horror films do, and it's a treat to see it play out in a more comedic context. Unfortunately, the far more interesting story that revolves around Lester is frequently impeded upon by a dire subplot, in which Jane strikes up a youthful romance with the neighbor's son Ricky (Wes Bentley), whose every line of dialogue is filled to the brim with Important and Meaningful pseudo-philosophy.

In my notes, I took to calling his character Donnie Dorko.

As Ricky tools around with his camcorder, making Intense, Significant Statements about how plastic bags and dead birds are metaphors for life, Lester's plot falters, devolving temporarily into an absurd sitcom plot  that turns him into a sputtering cartoon figure, while Angela herself vanishes completely for over a third of the running time, sucked into a black hole of self-congratulation. Of all of the insight and commentary on the American family that American Beauty attempts to cram into its two hours, only about 60% is presented in a manner that doesn't make me want to eject bile directly onto a teenager's face.

However, despite a grossly inflated sense of its own importance, American Beauty is a rather remarkable film. Nearly every aspect of its production is a finely tuned instrument of emotional evocation, from the production design on up. Now, it's probably obvious that the color red appears in the film in profusion to reflect the passion and vigor of various characters, but every little detail from the placement of a kitchen island to the leaves on the trees lining the street play a small part of making the film's universe a complete, visual whole.

Likewise, the cinematography is mathematically precise, freely giving and taking power, shifting the dynamics between characters with breathless ease, all compounded with the alternately jangling and peanut butter smooth score. Every moment is picturesque and precise, but where American Beauty truly comes alive is in its fantasy sequences, which are shot with reckless abandon with an absurdly generous wealth of vivacious color, providing instantly iconic imagery left and right.

There's a few unfortunate bits of gummy-looking CGI which only a mother could love, and Mena Suvari's performance degrades every time she is called upon to say another line (though, to be fair, Angela is more of a distillation of virtues than an actual character), but technical flaws are few and far between.

Just like Thora Birch's future movie roles. Zing!

Kevin Spacey and his co-stars are terrific, but the real standout of the film is Annette Bening, whose glacier-like features and perpetually frozen smile begin to crack and thaw under the pressure. She lets us snatch glimpses of the true Carolyn through an impeccable physical and vocal performance.

So, all things considered, American Beauty is a terrifically professional example of creative filmmaking. Its lofty artistic goals are only partially met, and it would be much improved if someone took a scalpel to any scenes that attempt to understand high schoolers, but as a cinematic machine it's a damn Rolls Royce.

As if I could dislike any film that name drops Re-Animator.

TL;DR: American Beauty is a tad pretentious, but it's a well-oiled machine of a film.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 941

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