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American Beauty

September 9, 2014

American Beauty (1999)
Director: Sam Mendes
Actors: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Wes Bentley

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Synopsis: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a forty-something family man, acts out a subversive ‘awakening’ as rebellion against the sterility of his office job and suburban lifestyle in general. This rebellion plays out against the backdrop of the troubled internal lives of the many family members, friends and neighbours around him….

Review: It’s always an interesting process to go back and reappraise highly garlanded films, and to attempt to assess their true value away from the hyperbole and potentially unreliable swell of critical consensus that envelops these works on their release.

American Beauty is such a phenomenon – sweeping the boards during its awards season run in early 2000, yet rarely mentioned now as any type of enduring classic of American cinema. Very loosely, I see American Beauty as a work of two polar effects. It’s underrated as a visual work and a valid form of technical, studied, theatrical cinema, yet arguably overrated (not poor per se, just relatively unrevelatory) in its thematising and deconstruction of the ethos of so many things that underpin ‘American’ socio-culture – the valorisation of Capital values and the chronic dysfunction of home/family/community institutions.

To cover the positives first, I admire the inventiveness of Sam Mendes’ rhetorical assault on his audience. We too often associate cinematography with the qualities of photography (beauty of image alone), when in reality good cinematography is about framing, composition and playing with depth of focus – and this is one area where Sam Mendes (in conjunction with DP Conrad Hall) really excelled. For a film that is in many respects a gothic, theatrical tragi-farce, Mendes and Hall conjure numerous ironic tableaux, and also multiple, subtly changing frames of reference to inflect the action and three-dimensionalise the narrative and characters arcs – from Lester’s post-mortem voiceover, to sudden unannounced cuts to Ricky’s unnerving home video perspective, the overall distanced, ominiscient view of proceedings, and Lester’s own outlandish, seductive dream sequences.

The satirical leaning of the piece feels the weakest element to me in retrosepct. The army veteran/catatonic wife subplot is a little obvious (particularly when there’s a late, convenient revelation over what the veteran’s been suppressing), and as heretic as it may sound, I actually find the Spacey/Bening performances (or perhaps more accurately, the Lester/Carolyn characterisations) the least interesting aspect of the film. Although I know it’s an intentionally arch film, registering a good couple of removes from reality, both Lester and Carolyn never escape the sense that they’re ciphers, in service to the manoeuvrings of a storyteller(s). Now I love Annette Bening, but it’s either a bad performance or more likely a trap of a stereotypically shrill, ‘woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ caricature, as some of her scenes are unwatchable and extremely unsubtle. Equally, Kevin Spacey almost seems too clever an actor for Lester Burnham. Perhaps the problem is that we never really see the downtrodden nature of Burnham’s life pre-awakening, we just take it as a given from Burnham’s own sarcastic narration, but all I see is a very confident man almost over-selling and over-rhetoricising Burnham’s sardonic revolution. Again, I know the work has a knowing theatricality to it, but I can’t help but feel the poignant and profound ending it strives for is contradicted by the lack of sincerity in some of the storytelling that has come before it. (September 2014)



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