aka The Value Of HindsightDirector: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper
We've all seen American Beauty. What, you havent? That's why you're reading a review? Alright, I'll keep the ending to myself. And I promise, promise, promise not to harp on too much about that plastic bag.
Lester Burnham is a schlubb, a loser in a job that's more glass coffin than glass ceiling. His wife is highly strung, polished, waxed; his daughter isolated, hiding in oversized jumpers. The three of them knock about in a big, beautiful white house, where the sofas are Italian silk and the gardening clogs match the handles of the shears. Then, Lester Burnham gets a boner for a high school girl, quits his job, buys a fast car, starts working out and smoking weed, and thus undermines the American ideal in favour of the Middle-Aged-Man Ideal, which is apparently the pursuit of chicks who can't vote and abs of steel.
This is a good film. It's fine. Forgive my blasé summary; but when you reduce it to its component parts it really doesn't have the shine that we were all blinded by when it was released. It was Oscar fodder from the first, and there we have the crux of it: the weight of the Academy's rotund backside on the rookie Sam Mendes, which apparently scared him stiff enough that he uses the same slightly disembodied voice over device in all of his films, like a robot stuck in a loop.
So terribly worthy. Kevin Spacey riding on the high of The Usual Suspects and Seven. Annette Benning, Thora Birch, Chris Cooper. Indie pedigree with Hollywood backing. And parts of it hold up to scrutiny, sure. The cinematography is flawless, the depth of colour and use of hurricane cam slow motion, the mixture of DV and film (the first Oscar contender to ever feature DV footage), the rose petals that look like velvet. The soundtrack, like anything Thomas Newman touches, is spiky and golden, and offsets the visuals perfectly.
The main problem is, this glittery Oscar-tinted bubble is bouncing around on the spikey head of the film's lynchpin: Ricky Fitts. Who is nothing but a dream. An incredibly intelligent, spiritually enlightened, artistic, mature teenager who makes a pretty risk-free living from dealing drugs. He may as well ride a unicorn to school - and to that end, he WALKS that mile. He's an alien! He films rubbish for fun. He doesn't exist. And when you realise that, everything falls apart.
It's all trite. It's completely pedestrian, so dull, so pathetically believable - and most of all, it's not important. Glorifying one white guy's midlife crisis. The path to underage poon-tang (that's what the kids are calling it) is the path to enlightenment. Tosh. It could have a kick, yet it neatly sidesteps the interesting issues of American suburbia to focus on Lester, jerking off in the shower.
Here's the nutshell: It's good, but REALLY. That plastic bag? Annette Benning's performance, massively out of the register of everyone else's? Chris Cooper's incredibly minimalist turn as Ricky Fitt's father, pared down in the edit to a few scenes with the mother that tell you simply everything about their whole lives, but then soiled by the OMG THAT EXPLAINS EVERYTHING ending? That sodding PLASTIC BAG? Looking back on it, does it really hold weight? Are the criteria that made it good at the time still valid?
Maybe they are. Maybe you'll be swept away. Maybe you'll go and watch Jarhead and The 'Burbs and pretty much get the same experience with a lot more laughs.
...buy the soundtrack.
Han The Chan