Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 5, 2011)
Logically, I should have greeted the acclaim accorded American Beauty with glee, especially when Oscar time came. After all, Iíve often bemoaned the Academy's stodgy and unadventurous choices over the years, and for something as distinctive and quirky as Beauty to win so many prizes seemed like something I should have regarded it as positive.
And yet I didn't feel such joy, simply because I don't think Beauty is an especially great movie. For certain, I'm pleased that a film such as this garnered so much praise. Too many Best Picture winners have been the safe choices and it's nice to see something with so many risquť elements get such positive attention.
Nonetheless, after three viewings of Beauty, I remain slightly mystified as to why it received so much praise. To be sure, it's an intriguing movie, but I still don't think it lives up to all its critical hype.
When I first saw Beauty, it was relatively new but I'd heard all of the raves from critics so my expectations were high. At that showing, I definitely thought it was interesting but it didn't dazzle or engross me as the critics had said it would. The movie seemed well-executed and mildly provocative but it wasn't something that stayed with me for much time after the screening ended.
Since expectations strongly affect my opinions, I thought this may have been one of those cases in which my sights were set so high that nothing could have lived up to them. As such, I was curious to discover how I'd feel about Beauty upon subsequent viewings.
The results? About the same. I still find elements of Beauty that I like, but I think it fails to measure up to the critical hype.
The positives: B focuses on the lives of some fairly ordinary citizens and does so in a reasonably convincing and realistic manner. We find Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a schlub who's been beaten down by life and wife for many years; he's living a drab, joyless existence. His wife Caroline (Annette Bening) maintains an artificially perky existence through which artifice means all; she's clearly just as unhappy as Lester but is unwilling to recognize this.
Stuck in the middle is teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). She's going through the usual teen angst, exacerbated by her parents' issues. Her aspiring model friend Angela (Mena Suvari) makes certain she knows how ordinary and bland Jane's day-to-day existence is.
Things start to change because of two separate events, both of which reconnect Lester with his inner teen. First, the Fitts family moves in next door to the Burnhams. There's hard-ass Colonel Frank (Chris Cooper), his disconnected wife Barbara (Allison Janney), and free-spirit son Ricky (Wes Bentley). The latter Fitts has the most direct influence on Lester as his "damn what people think" attitude reminds Lester of what it was like to be young, free and have your whole life ahead of you.
The second influencing factor occurs when Lester sees Angela during a high school basketball game. To say that Lester's smitten is an understatement, and he quickly reconnects with the thoughts of a sex life, something that had remained dormant through many years of his lifeless marriage.
From there, the sparks start to fly. Lester's attitude toward life changes, Jane and Ricky connect, and Caroline tries to deal with all of this. The whole point of Beauty seems to relate to cherishing life and all the small but wonderful moments that happen while they happen and live each day fully, and the movie transmits these ideas effectively, if smugly. This is a film that will help you appreciate things better. Director Sam Mendes illustrates all of the little wonders that we normally miss because we're so submerged in the stupidity that somehow becomes important to most of us, such as losing the passion of a moment because of fears that a couch might get a tiny stain.
The film concludes with a montage of these small but memorable moments that is possibly the best part of the movie. Although our own special memories will obviously be different, the scene connects us with the notion of the moments and is quite touching. The segment risks becoming overly sentimental but stays on the side of positively evocative emotions.
The cast is uniformly excellent, starting with yet another terrific turn from Spacey. I rarely recall the first time I saw an actor, but Spacey's debut (to me) in 1992's Consenting Adults stands out clearly; I didn't know who this guy was but he made a strong impression. As Lester, Spacey fully captures the many dimensions of the character and renders them all fully, from Lester's wimpy qualities at the start to his growing joy when he starts to assert himself to the gentle peace with which he regards his fate. It's not Spacey's best performance, but it's terrific nonetheless.
My thoughts about Bening's work are a little less clear, though some of this relates to the fact she has the less well-drawn and realistic character. At times Caroline comes across as too broad and cartoony, and it can be hard to see her as a real person. Despite that, I thought Bening was solid, and she helps make the role more human than it probably should have been.
As for the negatives, I had some problems with a few casting choices. For one, I found Bentley and Birch too attractive for their roles. Actually, my main gripe is with Bentley, for Birch's beauty probably makes sense. Jane thinks that she's unattractive though she's not, which offers an apt depiction of the negative body image suffered by many folks; geez, she even convinces herself she needs breast augmentation although she's really pretty stacked.
I still think Jane should have been a bit less attractive, but this issue doesn't have as large an impact on the film as does Bentley's looks. Ricky is considered a weirdo and a freak by the high school community, and while a handsome guy can still be viewed that way, it made it more difficult to believe, especially since we only hear the viewpoints of teen girls. It'd be easier to take if some boys denigrated him, but since it's all girls, I found that less believable. C'mon, these girls have to respond to his handsomeness to some degree, but we never see that; even when Jane starts to warm up to him, it's for completely emotional reasons and his appearance never becomes a factor.
One aspect of Beauty that seems contrived stems from its attempts to be a murder mystery. It's not a spoiler for me to mention that Lester dies at the conclusion of the film; we learn this less than five minutes into it. However, the identity of his assassin remains unclear until the very ending, and this fact is played up heavily throughout the picture. The number of red herrings and false leads is astounding and the movie tries hard to play with our heads.
I think all of that backfires to a degree, as it makes the film depart from its mission. At times Beauty feels like one of those "Who shot JR?" episodes of Dallas as it develops various threads, and this is distracting and superfluous. The movie has enough going for it anyway; we don't need a silly "whodunit" tossed in for artificial tension.
Despite some flaws, I find American Beauty to provide an engaging and fairly thought-provoking experience. The best film of 1999? Nope - I'd take movies like Fight Club, Three Kings or Being John Malkovich over Beauty in a heartbeat. However, I still like Beauty and think it merits a look.