Danny Westhorpe, 23, Newcastle Upon Tyne.

• Film Reviews » American Beauty

“You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday.”

Most top professionals have struggled to categorise American Beauty into one genre. Some say it’s a drama while others claim it’s a black comedy. Some would even go so far as to call it a romantic tragedy. Regardless of individual genre though, the majority claim it to be one of the best films released in the 1990’s, if not cinema history.

The classification problems are easy to understand. This film is arty yet mainstream; dry yet funny, and sophisticated while simple. Director Sam Mendes has taken an interesting script and went above and beyond the call of duty with it to create a true masterpiece.

With a small cast of both acting veterans and silver-screen newcomers, American Beauty focuses on Laster Burnham (Kevin Spacey), an un-respected man trapped inside a world of repetition and bore. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is blatantly cheating on him and his daughter Jane (Thorna Birch) is embarrassed by his sheer presence. With his daughters best-friend (Mena Suvari) acting as forbidden sexual motivation, Lester decides it’s time for change, and goes about trying to recapture the spirit he embraced as a teenager.

As a lot of good movies do, the film is littered with entangled side stories. Enter Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) - the Burnham’s new next door neighbour. Playing a socially awkward loner with a fairly unique view on life, Bentley puts in a great showing in his first major cinema role, and flourishes as the movie goes on. His relationships with Spacey and Birch’s characters add real depth to the film, and while the former two put in great showings and gathered award nominations to boot, it’s Wes Bentley who really steals the show.

The chemistry between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari is outstanding throughout.
Wes Bentley plays a troubled and thoughtful teen in his first major film role.

Stylised as a typically suburban family in Chicago, the well-kept and homely look of the neighbourhood is a far cry away from the Burham clan. The editing is well done, and although the film is quite dark in places, the outside shots are bright and cheerful – a wonderful metaphor for what the family look like from the outside in comparison to the troubles they have when the curtains are closed.

While the movie flows well and keeps you entertained from start to finish, there are two or three scenes that really stand out, and capture everything that the film does well. As soon as you hear the line - “Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I ever filmed?” you know you’re in for a treat. Delivered roughly halfway into the movie, the setup, lighting and mise-en-scene are perfect and Bentley has the audience holding their breaths. The simplicity of what comes next is beautiful. The background music fits as well as anything another director has ever done and Bentley’s accompanying monologue is enough for you to easily get lost in the moment.

Another key scene involves Spacey and Suvari. The scene is shown as Lester Burham’s fantasy and features Savari’s character in a bathtub filled with rose petals. The background music suggests feelings of danger and strangeness while the lighting is set to look like a typical dream sequence. The dialogue is purposefully one-dimensional and sounds similar to something you would expect to hear in a low budget adult film – a nod to the type of fantasy Lester has in mind. In what could have came across as a cheap and tacky scene, the actors perform admirably, and instead showcase the themes of beauty, self-satisfaction and desire.

American Beauty triumphs in just about every area, but it’s the ears that really benefit most. The songs sync up so well with the events on screen that you would think each piece of music had been composed specifically with this film in mind. As previously mentioned, the “most beautiful thing I ever filmed” scene has a heart-felt melody by composer Thomas Newman. Simply titled “Any Other Name”, the track wonderfully complements the purposefully slow pans and dramatic still shots that Mendes has used throughout both the scene and the film.

Other well known songs feature prominently as well. Tracks from The Who, Bill Withers, The Beatles and Eels help make up an impressive soundtrack of songs that are generally calm, quiet and slow. However, faster paced songs are used occasionally. American Woman by The Guess Who is a great example. In a quirky scene a little different from anything else in the film, Lester Burham lets loose and speeds away in a new car singing the classic rock anthem. In complete contrast to most of the movie, the audience is quickly shifted from light paced music to a stereotypical guitar riff. The contrast works well, perking things up and the fast, catchy music is magnetic in entwining the viewer in Lester’s happiness.

Mena Suvari and Thora Birch star as two polar opposite girls with an interesting friendship.
"I feel like I've been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I'm just now waking up."

As far as drawbacks goes, they are few and far between. Some would argue that the characters are a little stereotypical with over half the cast feeling very familiar - the down on his luck guy (Lester), the moody, plain teen and her sexy, popular best friend (Birch and Suvari) and the new kid in town who’s not what he seems (Bentley). Personally thought I feel the characters have enough unique points to keep things fresh.

Cynics may also dislike this film for its positive view on things like drugs, violence and possible paedophilia. A forty-something man who starts smoking marijuana and going after a girl his own daughter’s age is always going to have a hater or two. However, it’s a film - and is therefore allowed a certain degree of artistic license to paint a vivid and engaging picture of life. The themes are necessary to tell the story, and regardless of whether you like or agree with the themes in question, it’s hard to deny they help bring the words off the paper.

A film doesn’t get to be the best-reviewed film of the year without bringing something special to the table. American Beauty does more than bring something, it brings everything. The casting is fantastic, the score – note perfect and the camerawork, revolutionary. Fans of art, music or drama will find it hard to criticise, whilst fans of big guns and no nonsense action films will probably still proudly stack it in their DVD collection, right between Die Hard and Rambo.

Copyright © Danny Westhorpe, 2015. All rights reserved.
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