Any film that does too well critically or commercially upon initial release brings forth a backlash born of hype and under or overrating (see 'Avatar' or 'Inception'). It's simply hard for any person to cleanly experience a movie after hearing how perfect, amazing, or genre-changing it may or may not be. Such is the case with 'American Beauty,' winner of five Academy Awards in 1999, including Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), Best Director (Sam Mendes, for his film debut, no less), Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball). All told, 'American Beauty' won 83 more awards around the world, is number 40 on IMDb's list of top 250 movies, and made $356 million worldwide…from a modest $15 million budget.
None of these stats suggest that everyone must universally praise or denounce this film, but having glanced around online, 'American Beauty' remains a polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it movie. For the purposes of this review, it should be noted that I remember seeing the film early in its theatrical run and really enjoyed it. It was beautiful, funny, and tragic. The question will be, much like revisiting 'Road to Perdition' a decade later, how does it hold up as a film, and down below, how does it measure up on Blu-ray disc?
Kevin Spacey plays the down-and-out Lester Burnham. Lester is unhappy in his life. He has a shitty job, a wife, Carolyn (Annette Benning), who no longer respects him, and a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), he no longer understands. And to make matters worse, as Lester himself tells us in the opening voiceover, in a year he'll be dead. As the tragic dominos begin to tumble towards a fatal gunshot, the Fitts family moves in next door. The teenage Fitts, Ricky, is a deeply sensitive young man who films everything on his video camera and sells drugs behind the back of his abusive father, Frank (Chris Cooper), a homophobic former Marine who parents Ricky with brutal fists.
After Ricky quits his job in an inspirational way, Lester's burgeoning mid-life crisis blows wide open. Most people spend their entire lives blaming others for their misfortunes and wishing for things they'll never do. In one day, Lester stops complaining and changes his life. He blackmails his useless middle-management boss, stands up to Carolyn, reengages with Jane, and buys the muscle car he's always wanted. I think one of the reasons this movie works so well, thanks to Alan Ball's script, is that in one way or another, we've all been a Lester, and through him we get to stand up for ourselves and say the things fear-of-failure normally prevents us from sharing.
Meanwhile, Carolyn finds comfort in the arms of the town's Real Estate King, and Jane begins to date Ricky, which helps him get out from under the watchful eye of his father…that is, until Frank misconstrues Ricky selling Lester pot as an act of prostitution. In another universal character arc, Jane is also best friends with Angela (Mena Suvari), who is obsessed with sex and beauty, and strangely mesmerizes the hapless Lester.
Simply and most humbly put, the acting on display here is great. There are identifiable characters -- their troubles are our troubles -- pushed to exaggerated, elevated extremes that feel fresh and unique. And there's a wealth of wonderfully thematic material on hand. My only quibble, a decade later, is that some of the film's elements are starting to feel old or less true to me. Specifically, Ricky as a visual poet finding beauty in "shocking," un-beautiful things feels either too naïve (pre-9/11 perhaps), or overtly pretentious. I'm not quite sure, but on a gut level, this element grows tiresome pretty quick. Ricky remains a strong presence and, in movie structure terms, the film's "engine of change" for just about every other character. I love his words to Angela in the film's final act. They are deep and cutting, while being terrifyingly true. And, of course, Spacey's final moments before he meets his prophesized demise are nothing short of heartbreaking. The man who had lost everything finds peace -- he smiles, happy and content -- and then the end comes.
Lastly, no discussion of 'American Beauty' would be complete without mention of cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. His collaboration with Sam Mendes yields very impressive results, most notably his work with rain and running water. I also love the uniformity and symmetry in the framing; the way the camera moves; the way the whites blow out in specific moments. It's distinct and beautiful.
Overall, I'm happy 'American Beauty' holds up as well as it does. It's a very good film and deserves to be revisited.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'American Beauty' is presented on one dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray disc, and appears to be Region-A locked.
'American Beauty' arrives on Blu-ray with another troubling Sapphire Series MPEG-4 AVC 1080p (aspect ratio 2.35:1) transfer from Paramount Home Entertainment. I have to admit that my expectations were pretty high, given the Mendes/Hall collaboration experienced on the near-perfect 'Road to Perdition' Blu-ray, but I'm pretty disappointed.
First, let's talk about the positives. In terms of resolution, depending on the scene, there's a lot of added detail on display here. For example, when Carolyn is cleaning for an open house, you can actually see how bad Annette Bening was at wiping the windows, something I've never noticed before. Flesh tones are also generally even, and colors themselves can be good (see the CGI roses which look a little plastic, but are a nice, bold red). Conrad Hall's cinematography is at its best with backlit precipitation -- there are a number of scenes with rivulets of water running down windows, and a few shots where Frank arrives outside Lester's house in the pouring rain.
Sadly, though, the overall picture appears slightly faded and flat, more so than I ever remember theatrically or on the DVD. Further, dirt and softness rear their heads more than they should, and detail completely disappears in shadow (see the shot where Ricky and Jane walk down their tree-lined street during the afternoon. On the left side, tree bark vanishes into crushed blacks). There also appears to be some ever-so-minor edge enhancement. All combined, it's less about a real failure than a general sense of not watching the most pristine print available (again, see 'Road to Perdition') which for me drags the PQ rating to 3.5 stars.
The "official" 3 star rating above may be a controversial one among our readers. I knocked the last half-star off because parts of the movie were filmed in standard definition DV. Before you go shouting at your computer screens, I understand this is filmmaker-intent, but I've seen this film in the cinemas, I've seen this film on DVD. The SD material was never that much of a problem. Here it is horrid, featuring red and blue tinted colors and gigantic pixels, all of which detract from quality. It may or may not be a mistake, but much like '28 Days Later', this can never be a "great" Blu-ray because it never had the source materials to achieve perfection. I do have a few questions, however. Does the SD footage look extra terrible because it has been converted too many times (from SD to film, then back down to video), or is this just a perception issue? Meaning, does SD video on a big screen look okay because in theaters we sit far enough away from the screen for our eyes not to see individual pixels, where at home I sit at THX-recommended distance for 1080p viewing? I'm not sure, but it would be fascinating to find out.
Bottom line, the Blu-ray is a step up from the DVD, but a mixed bag overall. Definitely not better than HD cable. I'm not sure if I'd spend the money for an upgrade or just live with my DVD.
'American Beauty' comes to Blu-ray with a decent English 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. As a dramatic comedy (or comedic drama), it's no surprise this film is front-channel heavy. The dialogue is perfectly balanced and easy to hear, which is great because there are so many well-written and acted lines on hand. Thomas Newman's score is the only sound element that really gets to show off in the rear channels, along with some rain, but even then the rears are more quiet than active. LFE supports the music and a few of the effects, but it's nothing to get your heart racing. Not every movie can be visceral of course, but much like the video presentation, perhaps my expectations were elevated from 'Road to Perdition' and this is clearly a lesser cousin to that Blu-ray.
Additional audio selections include French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. For subtitles, one gets English SDH, French, Spanish, and, Portuguese.
'American Beauty' arrives on Blu-ray with less special features than the 2000 Awards Edition DVD. Gone are the production notes, cast and crew bios, and the DVD-ROM content, which was a Digital Screenplay with corresponding film footage and storyboards. The good news, however, is most of the original release features remain.
'American Beauty' remains a very good comedic and tragic drama about self-discovery, featuring a number of impressive performances. As a filmmaking debut, Sam Mendes set a benchmark for critical and commercial success, because he got the best from his cast and crew members, especially cinematographer Conrad Hall. I really enjoyed coming back to it, but with distance, some of the film's elements, most notably Ricky's filmmaking and world view, seem either a bit pretentious or naive -- you pick. As for this Blu-ray, the HD picture is mediocre and I can't recommend it (at full price). For super fans of the film who must have every version, it is a step up over the DVD, but not much better than an HD cable presentation. For those considering a purchase, who have either seen the film or are coming to it for the first time, I would say rent it first to see if it is something you (still) love, or meets your personal HD standards.