Hey folks, Harry here with a brief intro to Moriarty's review. I'm still working on my review, but folks... Let me tell you, one can not speak in strong enough terms when speaking of this film. The performances by this cast are soulful and honest. They are over the top and real. They are funny and tragic. The film never ever does what you expect it to and it is a startling debut film for both the writer and the director. Read Moriarty, the old man knows of what he speaks in this case... (as opposed to his usual ramblings about the genius of DeMille and Eisenstein and the other filmmakers from his heyday.)
Hey, Head Geek...
Have you ever come to a crossroads in your life and looked around, suddenly not sure who you are or how exactly you got to this moment, this place? It's the kind of existential crisis we all wrestle with at times, and I'm no exception. There are nights when I'm alone in the lab, splicing a human arm onto a wildebeest's torso or futzing around with stolen nuclear materials, and I just have to ask myself, "Why are you so evil? Does it make you happy?" And when I found myself recently grappling with such a dilemma, I turned to the one thing that always gives me solace...
Fall Movie Preview Issues.
Yes, it's true. Both ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and PREMIERE just published their looks at the rest of the year, and it's great to just dig in and wallow in all the new photos, all the little tidbits. It's also fun to see just how many of the films we've already seen here at AICN. There's still a lot of great movies coming out between now and the end of the year, and one of them that I saw not too long ago manages to tackle that creeping malaise of life, that constant dissatisfaction with who you are, in a bold and original way. I'm writing about the new DreamWorks picture AMERICAN BEAUTY, a stunner that deserves to be a smash hit and a major awards winner at year's end.
I still haven't seen the trailer for the film, but it's been causing a lot of buzz since it premiered recently. People tell me it's striking, and they don't seem to know exactly what to make of it. I read the script for the film about six months ago and thought it was really strong, deeply eccentric, and would depend on a strong director and a perfect cast.
Well, guess what? They got a strong director and a perfect cast, and they took the script, cut the original ending off, and made it better. As a result, the film is one of the best debut films I've ever seen, marking Sam Mendes as a major new film voice. He's the latest in the grand tradition of enfants terribles from the theater world making the jump with from stage to screen with real flair. Some people would argue that Kenneth Branagh's HENRY V was just such an announcement, but I would say Mendes is far more promising as a filmmaker. AMERICAN BEAUTY is one of those rare films that nimbly blends jet black comedy, brutal character drama, and surreal stylistic touches with a sure hand, never fumbling the formula, never letting any one flavor overwhelm the whole.
The film is, first and foremost, a showcase for one of the finest performances I've seen from the gifted Kevin Spacey. Ever since I first saw this guy on TV's WISEGUY, I've been interested. He's had standout moments before -- GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, SE7EN, LA CONFIDENTIAL, THE REF -- but this is the one where he puts it all together. This is the absolute pinnacle of film acting. Scene after scene, moment after moment, this is defining work, hypnotic and true. Lester Burnham is totally real at the beginning of the movie, an average man who finds himself dissatisfied with all of it... his job, his relationships with his wife and daughter, his body, his car. The film uses voice-over exceptionally well, and it reminded me of both SUNSET BOULEVARD and ELECTION in equal measure. It's not wall-to-wall in the film, but when it's used, it's really moving.
Lester goes through a series of small awakenings in the film, and those awakenings cause him to change, to chase something better, something else. There's no life-changing plane crash here to motor the plot. It's just the little pressures, the little dissatisfactions, all of them finally adding up to something unacceptable. Lester finds himself at a point when he must either break or fight back. Surprising even himself, and to his evident delight, Lester fights back. He decides to live the life that he wants to. He changes everything, but in none of the predictable ways, and it changes everyone around him.
Now, even if this film were only notable for Lester, I would say you must see it immediately, but the magic of Alan Ball's script is that every character in Lester's world is equally worthy of our attention. His wife Caroline is played by Annette Bening, better here than she's ever been, in a performance that will definitely top many year end lists. This woman is a real estate agent who is wound insanely tight, who has let ambition chill her marriage, who has no idea how she has become who she is. Bening gives us layers and layers of depth in her portrayal of Caroline, and it's all real. There's truly scary scenes, including an unforgettable one in a house that she's showing one afternoon, but there's plenty of moments where she's hysterical, wicked, and even sexy. She's a real rollercoaster here, and she would blow a lesser cast off the screen around her.
As the daughter of Lester and Caroline, Thora Birch is a revelation. I've been aware of her work over the years in films like PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR & PRESENT DANGER, but I've never really thought anything of her one way or another. How could you realistically gauge her ability from those roles? Let me tell you, she's got the goods. This role should do for her what ICE STORM and BUFFALO 66 did for Christina Ricci, establishing her as a daring young actress who is developing into an unconventional beauty as well as a formidable screen presence. Her Jane wants to be connected to someone. Her parents try, but their attempts are clumsy and only distance her further. She has a best friend Angela, played with real knowing by AMERICAN PIE's Mena Suvari, who plays into Jane's fear that she's ordinary, plain, and that no one wants her. Angela is a future model who has, as one classmate puts it, "only been in SEVENTEEN once, and you looked fat!" She's also years ahead of Jane sexually, talking casually about how men always want to fuck her and how she lets the important ones, since that's how things work, and that's how people get ahead. She intimidates Jane, and she insults her in a million subtle ways, always putting her down, always making her feel like she's invisible.
Someone enters Jane's life who makes her feel visible, though, someone who can't take their eyes off her. A new family moves in next to the Burnhams, and the son is the dark, brooding, perfectly cast Ricky, played by newcomer Wes Bentley. He's scary at first, always videotaping, dressing "like a bible salesman," but that intensity gradually attracts Jane, until the two of them fall into a sweet, someone desperate teenage relationship. The scenes between the two of them are lyrical and perfectly capture that combination of love and lust that informs first relationships. Bentley and Birch both do outstanding work, rivalling the young casts of ELECTION and RUSHMORE for their direct honesty. This has been a great year for young actors to dig into material that is challenging, a cut above the stupid slasher movies and the "who's going to win the prom?" type teenage films. Like I was talking about in my Rumblings from the Lab on Tuesday, these films respect teenagers as people first, treating them as well and writing them with as much depth as any of the adult characters. Everyone's fascinating. Everyone is recognizable.
Spacey finds himself dazed, crazed with lust after the first time he meets Angela. His daughter knows and is repulsed. At the same time, he discovers that Ricky is a pot dealer and he begins to smoke dope for the first time in 20 years. His wife knows and is horrified. The thing that sets Lester free is that he doesn't care. He stops worrying that he's not living up to someone else's idea of who he should be and starts shaping himself into something new. In a series of wonderful, sharp scenes, he changes careers completely, trades cars, and embraces his new life. Spacey plays it for all it's worth, but he never overplays any of it.
Worried I've said too much? Impossible. I still haven't even mentioned Chris Cooper (LONE STAR) or Allison Janney (DROP DEAD GORGEOUS, PRIMARY COLORS), Ricky's parents, who are both marvelous in roles that could have fallen flat with the wrong actors attached. They're tricky, walking the line of charicature. Cooper in particular earns a Best Supporting Actor nomination here with his portrait of a father tormented by the son he's produced and the life he's been trapped into. There's a moment between Cooper and Spacey that is so perfect, so real, and so unexpected that it felt like an ad-lib, a moment captured instead of scripted. It's not, though. It's one of the crucial lynchpins of the whole film, and it was definitely Alan Ball's invention, but when the audience gasps and all the oxygen leaves the theater during that scene, you'll believe you've stumbled into the middle of something so achingly real that you'll almost look away. It's the kind of transcendent moment that some directors only get once in a long while. Mendes pays off a whole series of them in this one film.
I'm dying to talk to other people about this movie. I'm dying to talk about the scenes between Suvari and Spacey. In many ways, Mendes captures the exact mood that both film versions of LOLITA shot for and never reached. I'm dying to talk about the scene with Spacey and Bening in bed. I'm dying to talk about how Spacey deals with an outrageous workplace request. I'm dying to talk about Ricky's "most beautiful moment." I can't, though... it's not fair. Mendes has crafted such a great film that you must experience it without having it spoiled, and trust me, I haven't even begun. I couldn't... there's an embarassment of riches here. His material is provocative, but it's never shocking just for shock's sake. Instead, we are able to understand the motivations of all of the people onscreen. We are able to feel for all of them equally. When I read AMERICAN BEAUTY, I wasn't sure if I liked anyone in the movie. Now, haunted by Kevin Spacey's smile and the simple line, "I'm great," I know that I have been changed for the time I spent with Lester and the others.
I would be remiss if I didn't single out two of the film's other key contributors for their work on the picture. Thomas Newman is the film's composer, and the original music in the film is great. I'm wondering if some of it was still temp-tracked, though, because I know I recognized a fair amount of music from SCENT OF A WOMAN and MEN DON'T LEAVE, both of which were also composed by Newman. I guess if he wants to poach himself, he can, but I have a feeling this is music that will change. It definitely cast the right mood for the picture, though, and would seem to indicate that Newman is the perfect man for the job.
I know that Conrad Hall was definitely the man for the job as the film's cinematographer. If you don't know the work of Connie Hall, then go check out the IMDb right now. I can't even begin to list his credits here. He is one of the most talented, intuitive DPs in the business, and Mendes was brilliant to bring him onboard. The thing that distinguished Mendes as a stage director was his extremely stylized approach to drama. Anyone who's seen his decadent, degenerate CABARET can tell you how important the feel of the Kitty Kat Klub is to the piece. Mendes also created the cool blues and the stark sets of THE BLUE ROOM, the Schnitzler revival starring Nicole Kidman that generated so much press last year. In this way, Mendes is definitely reminiscent of Orson Welles in his early days. Mendes is a huge name in New York, but this film was a risk. There's no guarantee he'd be able to turn his ideas into something that would be special on film, not stagey. When you see a remarkable sequence early on involving Spacey, rose petals, and a fantasty image of Suvari, you will have no doubts that this man thinks in terms of cinema. He knows the language, and he uses it in bold ways. He's interested in trying new things, pushing the envelope, and it's a safe bet that whatever project he announces once this opens will draw the cream of Hollywood's acting community in flocks.
This is not an easy film. This is not always a happy film. This is the finest film DreamWorks has released to date. This is a film that captures the spirit of independent cinema better than most of what we call "indies" these days. This is a major piece of film art, and a textbook for anyone interested in film acting. This is a film that will shake you, that will disturb you, and that may ultimately break your heart.
See AMERICAN BEAUTY. Run... don't walk.