Last night I had the pleasure of attending an advance screening of "American Beauty," a stellar debut by director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball. In what many are calling the best movie of the year, Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, and Chris Cooper all give performances of their respective careers. At least that's what the critics have said. How did I like it? Well let's see.
"American Beauty" is the story of Lester Burnham, played to perfection by Kevin Spacey. He's got a family (a stressed out shell of a wife (Annette Bening) and a angst-ridden teenager hottie daughter (Thora Birch)), a house (right in between a successful gay couple and a military Colonel), a neighborhood, and a life. When we start this tale, Lester tells us it's all about to end. From there we more or less follow him on his path to freedom and happiness, ultimately ending with him feeling "great."
I was overwhelmingly surprised at what a well-done film this is, especially coming from a theater director and a first-time writer. The piece is abound with filmic goodies, such as recurring themes and camerawork, ingenious use of music and narration, and exquisite lighting. Certain aspects, such as the relatively small cast, still recall the theater (in which both Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey are pros), but these aspects also fall into the realm of typical film drama. Walking out of the cineplex I had a hard time accepting that the creators of this piece of art weren't decade-old vets of the industry or didn't get any set visits by Kubrick or anything. Amazing.
This film deals with difficult issues of life. Shortcomings, fears, inadequacies, and happiness all play pivotal roles for each character. The cool thing about this movie is that we the audience know this. Characters are set up and fleshed out so perfectly that we don't realize that we know these characters until they do something or say something as we go "oh sure, that's exactly what he would do or say." The exposition, usually one of the weaker parts of a film, is completely invisible for the most part (blatant aspects such as the narration aside), personalizing these characters quickly and succinctly. One of the larger reasons why we know these characters so well is the fact that the actors playing them are doing a tremendous job. When we see Chris Cooper, we already know what type of person he is before he introduces himself as "Colonel." We see it in his face and in his eyes.
Another major aspect of this film is the situation between Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham and Mena Suvari's Angela Hayes (Suvari plays Thora Birch's high school friend in the film). Many have said that this is finally "Lolita" done right, and I'll have to agree. Spacey plays his infatuation well and Suvari looks both sexy enough and young enough to be believable. Many of the scenes involving these two appear as dream sequences of Spacey's. These are done INCREDIBLY well, using every trick in the book to pull off a totally surreal and "dream-like" style (note the rose petals). Some start off subtly, making great use of lighting and score, while others dive right in. Mendes handles every scene in this thread with taste and integrity, ultimately ending in what made me very happy.
Many call this film a dark comedy, while I happen to think this is the very definition of drama. For me, the deciding factor is the last ten minutes. The ending sets the tone of the entire film. As one sits there, watching the credits scroll, the end reverberates in his brain, not the middle or the beginning. The first 100 minutes are abound in events weaved and stitched with humor. We are not seriously worried about anything. We get to sympathize with every character, feeling good or bad for them as they let go. However, there is a slight sense of foreboding throughout, starting with the very beginning narration. For me this anxiety grew and grew until I was on the edge of my seat, leg bouncing a hundred times per minute, waiting for the other shoe to drop. For others, who didn't catch or believe what Lester says at the beginning, the climax comes as a surprise. For me it was almost a release, even though they still got a few twists out of me. Now don't get me wrong, this movie was funny as hell, and had some very classic scenes and lines, but overall I'd say it was just an extremely well done drama.
This film is, in every sense of the word, near-perfect. Obviously some people will not like this film, rejecting it as a boring drama or just plain "not getting it," but for some it will be like it was made for them. Since it covers so many secret issues that we have inside of us, it's hard not to let this film in when you see it. I'd recommend it to anyone and everyone.