Alan Ball was pretty much an unknown to anyone but a few Hollywood insiders and fans of such television shows as Grace Under Fire and Cybill, where he wrote a mere total 10 episodes combined. When he began to shop the idea for American Beauty, he had originally conceived it as a stage production. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure that there was a studio out there that would touch the awkward dark idea. But Dreamworks was still a young company with big ideas. If there was a studio out there that was going to take a flyer on a young talent with an oddball script, it was Dreamworks. Of course, they weren’t going to take a very large flyer. The budget for the film was set at about $15 million. Not much even for 1999. The guys were willing to gamble. The gamble paid off.
The film didn’t attract any of the established directors in the industry. I’m sure the budget had as much to do with that than anything else. Sam Mendes hadn’t directed a feature film to this point. Actually, he hasn’t directed all that many films in the decade since. With the small money and young, inexperienced director, this was looking more and more like an independent or festival film. But then something began to happen.
The movie started getting some buzz in Hollywood, and it soon attracted a pretty talented cast. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening were cast in the leads. Other talented cast members would soon follow. Still, the movie was moving along like a festival favorite but box office disaster. Who knew that it would become the movie to see in 1999? It took 5 awards at the year’s Oscar party, including the coveted Best Picture and Best Screenplay departments. More important to the new moguls at Dreamworks, it brought in $130 million at the domestic box office and an additional $230 million in the foreign screenings. The movie cleaned up. For Best Picture it beat out such films as The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense which were all also nominated. Dreamworks was on the map.
Lester Burnham (Spacey) is a middle-aged man who has begun to grow tired of his life. Nothing excites him anymore. He hasn’t been intimate with his wife in years and barely knows who his daughter is. Wife Carolyn (Bening) has become cold and bitter. She complains and demands too much structure in her life. Together, they have built a comfortable living in American suburbia. It’s no longer enough for Lester. He feels numb…that is until he attends a cheerleading performance of his daughter Jane’s (Birch) squad in an attempt to at least feign interest. There he spies fellow cheerleader and Jane’s friend Angela (Suvari). From that point on, he can’t stop fantasizing about the girl. His dreams are surrounded by red roses, which my wife informs me are called American Beauty roses, hence the title. Who knew? When he overhears Angela tell Jane that she would sleep with him if he worked out more, he begins to attempt to tone up his body. More importantly, Lester has begun to come alive. He feels for the first time in years. He quits his job, blackmailing his boss out of a year’s salary and benefits, but takes a job as a fast-food counter worker.
Meanwhile, Carolyn is having an affair with her arch-rival, Buddy, The King Of Real Estate (Gallagher). A new family has moved in next door as well. Frank Fitts (Cooper) is a retired Marine Corps colonel and a strict disciplinarian who forces son Ricky (Bentley) to submit to regular urine tests. But Ricky is actually a drug dealer, selling premium pot to Lester. He also has a video camera fetish. He records everything, including Jane. Talk about your odd couple. Eventually, a series of misunderstandings turns American Beauty into an American tragedy. Of course, that’s no surprise, because Lester tells us from the beginning that he’s about to die; he just didn’t know it then.
The film is told in a rather bizarre style that Alan Ball has eventually parlayed into two very successful series for HBO. If you’re a fan of Six Feet Under, you will recognize much of the storytelling here. Ball brought the same quirky style and mood to that series for five years. You never know for sure exactly when Lester is in his head or the events are actually playing out. The music contains everything from Spyro-style video game tones to discordant sounds that are intended to put you on edge. This is not a traditional score by any means. Now he’s handling the undead in a more conventional series called True Blood.
What holds all of this quirkiness together is the performances behind the strange material. This movie just couldn’t have worked with a lot of other actors. It starts with Spacey and Bening and works its way down to the young actors, including Mena Suvari, who captures the energy that is so attractive to Lester. It’s no wonder that Ball brought her along with the film’s style with him over to Six Feet Under. It likely helped that Mendes was an inexperienced director. He hadn’t had much time to develop a style of his own. That meant Ball’s vision carried through quite strongly to the finished product. There’s no question that he managed to leave a wide footprint on the finished product. That would not have been the case with a more confident director. Unfortunately, Mendes has not been able to turn the gig into more of a career.
American Beauty is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of almost 40 mbps. This is a mixed bag for a high definition release. Color is the true standout here, and I suspect that was the original intention. The red color of the roses is incredibly vivid, making Lester’s dream more real than his reality, which is often quite subdued both in color and detail. Contrast is also exceptional in these dreams. The famous “bathtub of roses” scene provides a ton of stark contrast between the deep crimson roses and the very light skin of Angela. There are also a lot of moments where we are looking through Ricky’s camcorder and the picture is intentionally bad. I’d say this is a marked improvement over anything you’ve seen on DVD. It has its blemishes and rather weak black levels. It’s a flawed image presentation that might well be exactly what Mendes wanted it to be.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does well to separate the dialog and the unusual score. You’ll find that these tones dominate the rear speakers while the rest of the film lives very much in a claustrophobic state in the front center channel. The film actually does a better than average job of quiet. There are moments of near silence that are not compromised by any problems in the audio presentation. There’s a little sub from time to time, but the film plays heavily in the mid-ranges.
There is an Audio Commentary by director Mendes and writer Ball. The two compliment each other a ton here. As much as I feel Ball’s style dominates the film, he is pretty quiet here. It’s Mendes who carries the weight of the track.
American Beauty – Look Closer: (21:52) SD This vintage feature plays out very much like a promo piece. There are even inserts of critics who praised the film via text transitions. Cast and crew offer their thoughts, but this is all from the filming period and not a retrospective. That would have been nicer at this point.
Storyboard Presentation (SD) and Trailer (HD)
American Beauty has become one of those films that everyone has to see at least once in their lives. It’s brought a certain element to the pop culture that you just can’t understand unless you’ve seen the movie yourself. Don’t count on my descriptions here, either. In many ways the movie is indescribable. You really need to experience it for yourself. One thing this film is not, is ordinary. “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.”