"American Beauty," Sam Mendes, Film Review
A series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
In 1999, Thora Birch was still a rising star and American Beauty, as the first feature film directed by Sam Mendes, appeared to be the beginning of a career by an exciting new director. God, it was good to be alive in those days...
Let's face it, American Beauty is a likeable and memorable film. But it is also flawed in various ways that you might or might not choose to overlook. Things start well, with that evocative piano theme tune. And there are a bunch of great lines and images that stick with you. Some of my favourites include:
'Look Closer' (The sign on Spacey's desk)
'I will sell this house today'
'Fuck me, your majesty' – these last two from the Annette Bening character.
'Have you got a minute?' 'For you, Brad, I've got five'
'I wanted to show my girlfriend your Nazi plate, sir'
The cinematography is great throughout. And the theatrical lighting works really well, such as when the Nazi dad approaches Spacey for a kiss, is rebuffed and then fades perfectly into the darkness outside the garage.
On the negative side, it's impossible to believe much of the plot. For example, the scene where Spacey blags a year's severance pay and gets a job flipping burgers. What happens after the year? Plus in real life, the exit interview would have had an HR suit present so that Spacey's trick simply wouldn't have worked. This scene echoes the similarly flawed job dismissal scene in Fight Club.
And the neighbour is the world's most unconvincing drug dealer.
And Mena Suvari's character could surely only have been written by a middle-aged man.
A strength of the film is that every character is seen sympathetically, even when they have vastly different world views.
But the downside is that those sympathetic views are often vilely sentimental and unrealistic. The neighbour's saintly mentally ill mother is particularly unpleasant.
Somehow we have to balance the sympathetic portrayal of Spacey's urge to return to the uncomplicated joys of childhood – getting the car he always wanted and a remote controlled toy, smoking dope and listening to Dad rock – with the hard-to-argue-with assessment of him from his daughter as a 'lame-O,' a 'horny geek-boy who's gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school'. This particular contradiction is quite enlightening, but overall there is a slightly preachy message of fighting the system, throwing off the shackles of middle class professional life and regaining the joys of childhood – and when that message isn't backed up by realistic characterisation or events, it descends into sentimentality.
The shots of suburban windowpanes made to look like prison bars, the floating plastic bag, the petals, the creepy neighbour with a camcorder – these are all iconic shots.
It's one of those strange films that combine wonderful and awful elements. Mendes' subsequent films could have gone either way based on the evidence of American Beauty. Sadly, in my view, as with Birch's later career, it was all downhill after this one.
Personal Score: 6/10