With many great films there is that moment where it starts living up to its reputation. Some films, like The Truman Show, grab me at the first frame. Others, like L.A. Confidential take a little time introducing themselves. Doesn't make the film any less great. American Beauty's moment of clarity comes about 15 minutes in, when Rockwell High’s award-winning Dancing Spartanettes take the floor. Until then I'm entertained, but not impressed. (A scene involving Annette Bening trying to sell a house is particularly forced.)
What follows is a perfect piece of artistic filmmaking. The directing, lighting, music and editing define cinematic greatness. To the tune of “On Broadway” the dancers begin their routine, while the camera slowly begins to focus in on one single dancer.
While watching, you forget the quick rise and sudden fall of nymphet Mena Suvari. You forget Spacey’s numerous bad career choices following this triumph. The light intensifies, the editing becomes more seductive, and the band seamlessly (though abruptly) segues into Thomas Newman’s beautiful score.
A minute and half, and the moment is over. From this scene on, American Beauty still holds up, with career-best performances from everyone involved, except Chris Cooper. It’s one of those scenes that remind me why I love movies.
In his film directing debut, Sam Mendes gets the most important elements right. He directs a fine ensemble of actors, pushing the pros into places they've never been before while displaying levels of talent from the newcomers that haven't been tapped into again since. The performances are uniformly daring and strong without ever coming off like they're reaching for big moments. The moments come right to them. All of the characters - major and minor - are fleshed out with an emotional clarity you rarely see. Mendes displays equal skill at telling the story visually, with lighting that knows when to be epic and when - as in the family dinner tableaus - to go subtle. (Conrad Hall was one of the Gods of film lighting.)
One of my favorite movie pleasures is watching Kevin Spacey at the top of his game. Even something like The Negotiator benefits from what he brings to the part. He's known for the smug, sarcastic put down and playing people who are the smartest in the room (or at least like to think they are.) Here, Spacey starts against type as a squashed bug of a human, so destroyed by life he's ready to pop. Spacey's eyes are full of sadness. Look at his face during the cheerleader scene or when ordering a drink at one of his wife's functions. It's the best performance he's ever given.
For years, films have tried to expose the dark heart of suburbia, weaving tales of the slow death of the middle class, undone by their own complacency and misfortune. None have better captured the confusion, the alienation and the yearning to break free. Screenwriter Alan Ball taps into his character's fear - everybody must face that which scares them the most - and he does it with humor and economy. (There are no transition scenes. Every scene is important.)
Take the scene between Spacey and Bening which begins with Spacey announcing the purchase of his sports car. That leads to the couple's most tender moment until all is shattered by Bening's concern over the furniture. An actor could not hope to be given a better scene to play.RATING: * * * *
Possible Retro Filmspot Nominations:
Actor - Kevin Spacey
Supporting Actor - Wes Bentley
Supporting Actress - Thora Birch