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60. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: American Beauty

May 22, 2018

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Alan Ball
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper
Runtime: 122 Minutes

 

Original UK Release: 1999

 

★★★★☆
 

American Beauty is a film that's very title holds juxtaposed ideals together, at once a lie and a startlingly honest observation.

 

Birthed from the sensational Fisher/Buttafuoco case but observing the opposite perspective, we witness the unfurling of Lester Burnham's middling life as he surrenders to the sultry attitudes of his daughters best friend. Our insight into Lester's life becomes the core around which this poem to America is born, concerning itself with the hidden beauties we take for granted in our day-to-day lives.

 

Mendes operates with a similar gaze towards American pictures as Wim Wenders and Mike Nichols, through the eyes of Europeans looking in. Into the state of nineties suburban culture, and a reflection on the fallacy of safety that was commonly upheld by the upper middle classes.

 

Mendes makes a tremendously distinct leap from theatre to screen, with Conrad Hall displaying some of his best work with rich colour codes and dazed composition. Even Alan Ball's screenplay transcends it's sitcom origins by the movie's end, thanks to the dramatic restructuring of the climactic sequence. All the while, Thomas Newman's score channels the verdict valence between Lester's ethereal visions, the black comedy of its sitcom stylings and the vast emptiness of their truly sad and singular lives.

 

Every role is performed and defined brilliantly; deep, complex and usually pathetic characters. All in their own way looking out for something more than themselves, finding distraction from the banality of their own lives to be a humble, effective sanctuary. Spacey and Bening are a great duel pairing, Janney's nuanced 'It' factor resoundingly successful on all accounts, but the understatement of Birch, Bentley and Cooper soften its striking taps into the heart of the audience.

 

Funny, brilliant, honest. Even at its weakest moments, it offers more than many contemporaries every time it's witnessed.

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