Neil Young’s Film Lounge – American Beauty
USA 1999, dir.Sam Mendes, stars Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening
Let’s not get carried away with this one. American Beauty is a great script, taken to its limits by a flawless ensemble cast, and elevated even higher by Thomas Newman’s terrific score. It’s clearly one of the year’s most interesting and enjoyable films, but that doesn’t make debutant director Sam Mendes into any kind of new Orson Welles.
Kevin Spacey is a knockout as loser Lester Burnham, an ordinary middle-class American Joe Schmoe who, partly due to problems at work, partly due to the arrival next door of a bizarre teenager and his family, and mainly due to the jailbait appeal of his daughter’s best friend, undergoes a kind of total personality regeneration, throwing up his job and starting again from scratch, to the amazement and anger of his estate agent wife, Annette Bening.
The basic problem with American Beauty is that, while it supposedly celebrates spontaneity, originality, and the taking of risks, it does so in a rigid, control-freakish manner, thanks to Mendes’ relentlessly meticulous planning of shots, scenes, and the story as a whole. What should be fresh and bracing becomes, in the end, predictably formulaic, with far too many characterisations being based on stereotypes and leaden-footed ironies.
The film does contain, however, one of the most remarkable performances seen in American films for several years. Wes Bentley, as Spacey’s drug-dealing new neighbour, has spookily intense, enormous eyes straight out of a horror movie – Gus Van Sant must be kicking himself that he wasn’t making his Psycho remake around now, as Bentley would make an absolutely ideal Norman Bates. He makes his character’s unflinching inner strength leap off the screen, and it carries the movie along and stays with you long afterwards.
by Neil Young