Skip to content

American Beauty

September 9, 2014

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

american-beauty_0.jpg (324×183)

Synopsis: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a fortysomething 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. In retrospect, American Beauty stands as a work of two polar effects. It’s underrated as a visual work, and a valid form of studied, theatrical cinema, yet arguably overrated (not poor per se, just largely 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 domestic institutions.

The inventiveness of Sam Mendes’ rhetorical assault on his audience is probably the film’s greatest strength. 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 tragifarce, 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; 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. 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 personally contend that Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening’s performances (or perhaps more accurately, their Lester/Carolyn characterisations) are the least interesting aspect of the film. Although it’s clearly 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.

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, the film clearly has a knowing theatricality to it, but the poignant and profound ending it strives for is contradicted by the lack of sincerity in some of the storytelling that has come before. (September 2014)

 

 

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: