Today, I watched a favourite of mine, the third film nominated for Best Picture of 1999...
Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney
5 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor
Lester Burnham (Spacey) is enduring a whopping midlife crisis. He is stuck in a joyless marriage, hates his job and his daughter thinks he's a loser. Giving the rules a punch in the face, he sets out to change his life, beginning with blackmailing his employer for a huge severance package. He starts to work out in order to impress his daughter's best friend while smoking weed with her boyfriend. Meanwhile his wife Carolyn (Bening) is having a crisis of her own, beginning an affair with a rival real estate agent.
After watching American Beauty, my movie-reviewing notepad was inexplicably bare, indicative of my level of captivation. Considering the fact that I've seen this film several times before, that is no mean feat. And even though there are a few minor twists, of which I was obviously aware, I still found myself moved by them, a testament to the way in which the scenes were assembled. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball deliver an emotional and funny story that is enhanced by the striking cinematography. Despite being a suburban drama, legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall's beautiful images make the film anything but suburban.
One thing I hadn't noticed in my previous encounters with American Beauty was the artificially polished feel to some of the dialogue. Each line seems almost too perfectly constructed for its purpose, sometimes beautiful and poetic, sometimes clever and funny, sometimes simple and direct. Then again, taking into account the major theme of the story, that of keeping up appearances, it is perhaps just another layer to an already well-layered script. Each character is not exactly as they seem. There's a secret or at least some kind of deeper level to their personality and it makes for some utterly fascinating drama. The tagline on the film's posters is "Look closer" - in fact, that phrase even pops up as a postcard pinned to Lester's office cubicle - so if you follow directions well, you'll notice that there's a lot more going on underneath the surface.
A huge part of the hypnotising effect this picture had on me was due to the incredible score by Thomas Newman. At once quirky and touching, the music simply fills each scene with an almost haunting mood. One minute, it is eccentrically upbeat with melodic percussion, and the next, it is wistfully moving with piano and strings. The music plays such an important part in so many scenes, particularly the now iconic image of a plastic bag dancing in the wind. Yes, a pretentious concept, no doubt, but it is somehow mesmerising, if only for the fact that it's hard to believe that you're actually watching a plastic bag blowing around for a whole minute and a half.
Despite centering on Kevin Spacey's character, this really is an ensemble piece and the eclectic cast all do a magnificent job. If I were forced to single out one, it would be the delightfully crazy yet poignant performance by Annette Bening. And for those who really "look closer", you can spot John Cho, better known from the Harold and Kumar movies, in a wordless role as one of Carolyn's potential home buyers.