"To have one of the best films of recent times deconstructed by the director
and writer is a real treat, especially as director Sam Mendes brings his English literary
sensibilities to the task. Plus he’s prepared for this task: he admits to having
taken note of DVD commentaries and he has studied well. His approach is detailed without
being petty, and adds immeasurably to a deeper appreciation of the film and the reasons
for certain filmmaking decisions.
But before we go any further, let’s just revisit the story for anyone not familiar
with it: Magazine writer Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his real estate agent wife
Carolyn (Annette Bening) lead a materially comfortable but emotionally barren life in the
suburbs, with their disillusioned teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). The appearance of
Jane's school friend Angela (Mena Suvari) sends Lester into paroxysms of lust and inspires
him to quit his job and lead a carefree life. Meanwhile Carolyn falls for the charms of
rival realtor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and Jane becomes involved with the mysterious,
video camera-wielding Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) who has just moved next door to the
Burnham's with his father (Chris Cooper), an ex-Marine corps Colonel, and his emotionally
withdrawn mother Barbara (Allison Janney). These suburban lives are all emotional
Mendes pays tribute to the writing – and frequently points out how key scenes
sprang directly from the script. If ever there was a case study for the importance of the
script in film, this is it. But it is also a great case study for lighting cameramen, with
the experience of Conrad Hall well underlined by Mendes’ remarks.
Similarly, it is an actor’s showcase, a great example of how production design
builds innermost suggestions, and how music (here by Thomas Newman) plays a key role
beyond what some film music critics call the equivalent of a laugh track.
Mendes helpfully details some of the filmic references buffs will enjoy, such as small
homages to Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), Sunset Boulevard, Ordinary People and Marathon Man.
Each is small on its own – usually a single shot, but it invests the film with a
broader framework which adds a layer to our own appreciation.
The featurette is a so-so compilation of interviews conducted during filming and lots
of scene clips. The result is rather ordinary, especially when placed side by side with
the commentaries. Made in the 4:3 tv format, the featurette also suffers from giving
Steven Spielberg the squeezed look, whose interview must have been shot in a widescreen
Technically fine, with an easy menu, American Beauty is a classic and worth treasuring
on your DVD shelf."
Andrew L. Urban
Published March 8, 2001