Movie News

Moriarty ponders the fantastic movie, AMERICAN BEAUTY!

Published at: Aug. 19, 1999, 3:10 a.m. CST by staff

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...

"Moriarty" here.

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.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback

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  • Aug. 19, 1999, 3:19 a.m. CST

    by stewdog

    I don't trust Harry and company when they give glowing reviews of movies. The Iron Giant was definitely not all that.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 3:31 a.m. CST

    I am there

    by Darth Fart

    I am there, nuff said. I had to skim through the report, too many minor spoilers in there. Oh, I'm first.

  • Well...this is it. Probably the first real Oscar contender of the year (besides my much loved Fight Club). Kevin Spacey and Chris Cooper will probably pic up. The Academy loves them. Not sure of the rest though. Green Mile and (gasp) Blair Witch are the other possible contenders.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 4:30 a.m. CST

    RESERVING JUDGEMENT

    by Dr Vooch

    I read this script a while back and I must say that "compelling" is not a word I would associate with it. I would use two words, actually, "so what?". But Moriarty is usually pretty harsh on things (unlike Harry), so I will except my next invite to screen this film and, as a humble servant of this would-be hub of useful information, provide you all with a truly unbiased opinion about this film.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 5:47 a.m. CST

    Yup...

    by Yossarian

    Sounds a lot like I figured it would be based upon the trailer; another Ice Storm. Spacey has always been a favorite though, so I'll probably end up seeing it. I mean, come on, after all, it IS Keyser Soze...

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 5:56 a.m. CST

    Also,

    by Yossarian

    Why is it every movie reviewed on this site has "this actor earns a best supporting for their role in blah, blah, blah". If every person AICN thought deserved an Oscar got nominated, the ceremonies would last 8 days: " And the 4,346 nominees for best supporting actor are:" AICN has made me a cynic. Too many glowing reviews. Do you guys work on retainer or what? I'M TELLIN YA, THEY'RE SUSPECT!

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 6:50 a.m. CST

    swimming with the sharks

    by fonebone

    Spacey's best role.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 7:47 a.m. CST

    AICN Reviews

    by Outrider2k

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could see Moriarty or Harry put up a p/review that ran along the lines of: "I thought <name> was going to be good, but in reality, it's a pretty mediocre movie that doesn't bring anything new to the table. Here is what's wrong with it: 1)..." instead of reviews that either go: 'This movie was so good I cried' (Armageddon) or 'This movie is shit, stay awaaaay' (Inspector Gadget). In reality, 80% of films are just..you know, there. Personally, I prefer Mr. Cranky's reviews. At least you know the movie studios don't bribe him with stuff to praise their films :)

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 7:47 a.m. CST

    Figures

    by Deceon

    My first time in talkback - why now, why here? Because for about the past 2 years I've had an idea for a movie that, from what I can tell is incredibly similar to this movie. A man, beaten by the world, in thousand small way, goes through a metamorphisis, an awakening, and comes out clean on the other side. Of course, mine, Office Space, as well as this, all must pay homeage, to what in my opinion is the best movie, of this type, so far(since I haven't seen American Beauty) - John Patrick Shaley's masterpiece, Joe Vs. The Volcano. This sounds to be a good one as well.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 8:08 a.m. CST

    Reviews & impartiality...AGAIN

    by Prankster

    Oh boy, once more with the "They like stuff so often, they must be paid off or complete idiots." You people have been brainwashed by mainstream film critics, generally an UNNECCESSARILY NEGATIVE bunch (being negative helps you look cool) into thinking that a "real" critic is one who's constantly despairing about the state of cinema. Most of my local critics go out of the way to find the negative aspects of whatever movies have arrived, and only praise the utter flops. Well, Harry and Moriarty don't do that. They concentrate on trying to extract the jewels from the manure heap, rather than vice versa. If that makes them "suspect" then...GREAT. I don't know what it takes for you guys to realize this, but there's this thing called *opinion*. Just because Moriarty praises something and you end up hating it, it does NOT mean he's a sellout, or naive. It means you have differing opinions on a film. By now EVERYONE should know where they stand on Moriarty's opinions, and be able to keep what they can use and discard the rest. Moriarty is "right" for a lot of people, a lot of the time. But obviously not everyone is always going to agree with him. There have been people on Talkbacks saying that the Iron Giant was disappointing, if you can believe it...my first reaction is that these people are idiots who were distracted by the hype and may not even have seen the actual movie, but obviously that's not fair. They just have differing opinions. Saying that "Moriarty can't be trusted" is silly. A LOT of people trust Moriarty, but that's not neccessary; what's neccessary is that you USE YOUR OWN FREAKING JUDGEMENT on his reviews. If the idea of this film doesn't appeal to you, then don't go to see it, regardless of the glowing reviews. Of course, you could try opening your mind and trying to figure out what he saw in this movie that made him enjoy it so much, but that may be a tad advanced at this point.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 10:19 a.m. CST

    Blah Blah is right

    by Cineman

    You people have been turned into cynics by the critics of today who give negative reviews to almost every movie and the ones who don't are called "blurb-masters". Don't get down on Harry and Moriarty just because they love movies more than you and they try to see the positve side of all of them. And what the hell are you people talking about when you say "Harry only gives bad rveiews to movies people knew were gonna suck anyway (Inspector Gadget). If the studios were paying him, wouldn't Disney pay him for that film especially since most people over 10 years old thought it was gonna suck. You people love criticzing them so much, you forgot to include something in your criticisms: Valid points.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 3:43 p.m. CST

    i wasn't gonna be there...

    by tommy five-tone

    ...but i'm there now. you're right, moriarty, the fall movies previews are great fun. the goodies the autumn months have in store are usually a little more spicy...it's like getting the meal of your life at that weird-ass trattoria on the wrong side of town rather than going to your faithful old burger joint for the millionth time (if my lame metaphor didn't make it clear, burger joint = summer movies). i like burgers, but sometimes you want to try another flavour. mmmmm, food...where was i? movies! that's right! and damn, i like the look of this fall: i'm all over fight club, sleepy hollow (don't people realise that burton saying "it's a hammer film" is a POSITIVE?), three kings (this looks so fucking cool), the green mile...and now this one. if it's anything like the ice storm, it's gonna rock. much to my shame, i've had unnatural thoughts about thora birch since my ex made me watch now and then (but that mena suvari chick is just weird-looking...have you seen those pics in rolling stone's hot issue? brrrrr!). look, i'm rambling, but thanks again, moriarty, another top-notch review. before i bolt: damn it, deceon, i thought i was the only one in the world who dug joe vs. the volcano (so this is what it sounds like when doves cry), and harry, where's joe hallenbeck these days. i miss that cranky son of a bitch.

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 4:28 p.m. CST

    Beautiful!

    by Jamaica

    Thanks so much Moriarty, for your wonderful review of "American Beauty"! (Geez, man I practically wept.) I have been waiting for this film since August of last year when Spacey finally took the plunge and signed on board. It sounds as though he made the right decision. I know that this film may be the one to truly show what he is capable of doing, and perhaps from now on he'll be getting more promising offers for film roles that would normally go to more recognizable actors. It may be the same case for Chris Cooper, too, who has always done exceptional work for John Sayles, and deserves more credit than he is usually given. Anyway, it's about time we start getting back into films that examine people and relationshoips with one another, I mean hey, I enjoy a fun popcorn movie as much as the next gal but sometimes I want a film that will make me ache when I leave its world, and want to return to it again and again. I'm going to *hope* that this film gives me as many shivers of joy as Moriarty's review did!

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 4:31 p.m. CST

    regarding joe hallenback

    by Doctor Zaz

    He's Harry's alter ego. A dark side of Harry just so Harry can provide negative reviews. So he can vent what sucks about Star Wars and those sorts of things. Howz that for conspiracy?

  • Aug. 19, 1999, 4:36 p.m. CST

    Dreamworks

    by AnastasiaRose

    So, it's Dreamworks' best film.You know that doesn't say a whole lot when they've released dreck like The Peacemaker and The Haunting.But this sounds good so they'll probly mismarket it or some shit.

  • Aug. 20, 1999, 1:09 p.m. CST

    Spacey's Very Best Work? "Long Day's Journey..."

    by AlanBenson

    Find this at your quirky video rental store if you can-- "Long Day's Journey Into Night": the made-for-cable version starring Spacey in the same role that launched Jason Robard's career... Fucking amazing. The best actor of our day, playing the most rip-your-guts-out tortured character in 20th Century literature...

  • Aug. 21, 1999, 10:33 p.m. CST

    Look closer...

    by Henry Fool

    For anyone who has seen the trailer for this movie, as have I, there is an immediate concern over whether it gives too much of the movie away. Then again, I just saw, and loved, the Sixth Sense. That film had an excellent trailer although the super natural elements of the film do not really become evident until about halfway through the film. If one believes the characters and cares for them, then how much of the story one knows doesn't seem to matter nearly as much. That said, I'd like to say that this movie looks amazing. I can't review the film, obviously, since I haven't scene it. But where many trailers would use an uncreative line such as ' So and so pictures proudly present the story of a man making a new life,' this trailer simply says 'Look closer.' If American Beauty accomplishes nothing else, then I hope it will at least draw attention to the overlooked idea that trailers are an art to themselves. They should be carefully calculated to make one curious, yet still save all the surprises for the real experiences. I hope Hollywood will have the sense to stop producing trashy trailers such as the ones for films like 'The Negotiator' or 'Snake Eyes' that spoon feed that audience the entire story of a film. I think I speak for most people when I say we'd much rather see trailers like the one for 'The Sixth Sense' or the first trailer for 'The Phantom Menace' that make us want more without giving us everything in three minutes. Whether or not anyone reading this loved or hated these films, I don't think anyone can deny that seeing those previews aroused curiousity and a desire to find out whether the promise of an emotionally and/or satisfying visual experience was kept by the product.

  • Aug. 25, 2006, 7:37 p.m. CST

    Look closer. Hah! Made you look!

    by Wolfpack