Plot: What’s it about?
Meet Lester Burhnam (Kevin Spacey). Lester is your average, ordinary guy. He’s married with a child, Jane (Thora Birch). His first admission to us is that he’ll be dead in a year. It’s interesting to say and even more interesting to hear…I mean how many movies start out with the lead character talking from beyond the grave? The zest and spice of life for Lester has long since disappeared and each day is more and more miserable. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a down on her luck real estate agent. His daughter hates him and just about everyone around her and spends her free time saving for breast augmentation surgery. And it goes on like this, day in and day out. Lester goes to work at his advertising firm, making his wife late for her job and Jane goes to school to try and hang out while attempting to fit in socially. The neighbors are gay, but it’s of no consequence to the Burhnam’s, as their lives seem to have come to a complete halt about 10 years ago. So what is American Beauty all about? Certainly it’s not the story of an atypical (or typical?) family and how all their lives are miserable and meaningless. It’s not.
American Beauty is about discovery, self-discovery to be more exact. While forced to go to one of the basketball games by his wife (and where Jane is a cheerleader), Lester happens to get a glance of Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). While this isn’t a story along the lines of Lolita, this is a broad awakening for Lester. Making a fool of himself and trying to be a “cool, hip dad”, Lester desperately tries to flirt with Angela. Of course the only person who has more of a self-image problem that Lester is Angela. A wannabe model, Angela makes up stories of lurid sex with unsuspecting photographers and passes it off as experience, though all of her awe-admiring friends think she’s a slut. Finally having something worth living for again, Lester has a new found zest for life. He begins working out in the garage, jogging with his neighbors and blatantly admits that he “…wants to look good naked”. Most of this takes a backseat, however, to the “other” plot of the film. Moving in next door to the Burhnam’s are the Fitts’. Ricky (Wes Bentley) is an odd, eccentric fellow who has a knack for videotaping almost everything he sees. Once he sets his eyes on Jane and they get past their initial confrontations, the plot thickens…Now the Fitts’ seem to be normal, but the mother is clearly unhappy mostly due to the somewhat dictatorship that the family lives in. Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), a retired Marine officer has tried to instill the lessons he’s learned in the armed forces in his son. It didn’t work. His son, a high-profile drug dealer, is forced to take urine tests and the whole family lives in a mild fear of the Colonel.
As Lester begins to take shape (literally), he has been fired from his job, but has received a very gracious compensation (in one of the movies funnier scenes) and now works part time at a fast food restaurant. Trading in his Toyota for a Camaro and smoking pot during his daily routine, Lester is finally on the path to getting his life back. As Caroloyn’s affair with local real estate tycoon, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), progresses, the family seems to actually be doing better by lying and cheating. So where’s the harm in that? What we forget is that time is passing, and that “year” that Lester referred to at the beginning of the movie is coming up. As Ricky and Jane’s relationship blossoms (as does Jane), what was once considered a problem isn’t so anymore. But things spiral down into one of the best climatic scenes that I can remember. True, American Beauty was considered overrated and in a relatively weak field of Best Picture candidates, it won. While it may or may not stand the test of time, American Beatuy is something to be seen. The cast is perfect and Kevin Spacey was well-deserved by winning his second Oscar for his role here. People have their opinions, but a movie wins Best Picture for a reason. Look closer and see why…
Video: How does it look?
Of all the studios out there producing DVD’s, Dreamworks is the only one that can say “All of our titles have anamorphic transfers”. And it’s true. Dreamworks has committed to a standard of excellence that, thankfully, the major studios (and smaller ones as well) are starting to live up to. American Beauty is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic image that blew me away. A movie with such surreal undertones has some pretty interesting imaes and they all look great in this transfer. A majority of the movie is dark, wheather it be shot at night or in dark rooms, but the image has no problem and handles it well. There was no artifacting, as this is a newer movie and the transfer is digital, at all. Edge enhancement is minimal and flesh tones look natural as well (except for a few dream sequences that give the faces a more washed out look, but that’s the movie and not the transfer). Reds, always a problem point on some movies, have a lot to do with this movie, but I can say that every rose petal looks outstanding. Truly a great picture (in as many senses of the word).
Audio: How does it sound?
This is the first disc from Dreamworks to feature both a DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the same disc. Dreamworks, obviously, a big proponent of DTS had previously issued all of their DTS discs seperately from their Dolby Digital counterparts. With this and the upcoming “Gladiator”, I’m personally glad to see that both tracks are included on the same disc. Anyhow, I listened to both soundtracks and as I expected the DTS is the one to listen to. American Beauty is not entirely a movie for audio, but the score is something that sounds great in DTS sound. Sound effects are mainly limited to the front three channels, but some scenes have all five channels whizzing away. The end scene in the rain is a particularly good example of this. Dialogue is clean and natural and has no hint of distortion that I heard. While the discrete effects of the DTS were more noticeable to me, I doubt anyone will be disappointed with the soundtrack that they choose. An English Dolby Surround track is also included for those of you who are waiting for some sign from above to buy a 5.1 system!
Supplements: What are the extras?
Labeled as an “Awards Edition”, American Beauty certainly has it’s fill of extras and it was certainly worth the wait for the DVD (the VHS has been out for 6 months). The most noteable feature is the screen specific commentary with Academy Award winning Director, Sam Mendes. Mendes talks about the production and his troubles to get the film made. Dreamworks (Stephen Spielberg) read the script and told him to make the movie and don’t change a thing! It’s interesting to listen to the comments, and I’d say that this is one of the more informative commentary tracks that I’ve listened to (and I’ve listened to a LOT). For you DVD-ROM buffs, there is a digital screenplay with the corresponding storyboards that is a nice touch. Also included are the standard Production Notes, Cast Bios and two theatrical trailers. Lastly, a featurette of the impact that American Beauty entitled, aptly enough, “Look Closer” is the icing on the cake. The featurette opens with images of all the press and stars all to the tune of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”. Though not as long as I’d like, it’s nice to see extra features incorporated on a disc and American Beauty has just enough to leave you wanting some more.