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Featured Blu-ray Review: American Beauty

September 18th, 2010

American Beauty - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

American Beauty was made in late 1998 and early 1999, for just $15 million. It opened in limited release at the end of 1999, but despite never expanding truly wide nor ever taking top spot, it earned just over $130 million at the box office. It is also widely considered one of the best movies of 1999 and was the big winner on Oscar night taking home five awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actor, Best Original Screenplay, not to mention several Golden Globes, and plenty of various guild awards. Now more than a decade later, does the film still hold up?

The Movie

Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, who is 42 years old and has he states in his opening narration, he will be dead within the year. However, as he further explains, in many ways he is already dead. His wife has no respect for him, while he and his daughter has drifted apart in their relationship. Things are not better at work, where they've hired an efficiency expert and he is instucted to write an essay on why he should keep his job. He's sleepwalking through life.

Things begin to change for him when new neighbors move in next door. There's Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts, his shy and forgetful wife, Barbara, and his creepy stalkerish son, Ricky. Okay, calling him creepy and a stalker isn't fair, but we do first meet him while he is secretly filming Lester and Jane while they are talking in the kitchen. Shortly afterward, Lester is dragged by his wife to watch Jane cheer for their high school basketball team. He doesn't want to go, he's pretty sure Jane doesn't want either parent there, but when he gets there, he sees Angela and his instantly infatuated.

On a side note, if this was a bad movie, they would be playing "Dream Weaver" in this scene. The song by Gary Wright is excellent, don't get me wrong, but it is simply overused in similar scenes.

He also meets Ricky in a more proper way and the two begin a friendship, which is centered in a large part around pot. He starts to exercise, wakes up out of his previous life, and begin to live again. Even bad news is not enough to deflate his new found sense of worth. However, since the movie opens with Lester saying he will be dead within a year, you know this will end poorly.

So, does American Beauty live up to the hype after all of these years? In a word, yes. It's a great script that delves into a lot of very dark corners of suburban life. It does so in a way that, while not exactly uplifting, still has a lot of comedic notes to it. Also, the acting is damn near perfect at every turn. I'm not shocked Kevin Spacey won the Oscar, while I am a little shocked Annette Benning didn't win. Perhaps Being John Malkovich had a better script while I still think Toy Story 2 was the best film of 1999. Those minor quibbles aside, this movie deserved all the accolades it earned. While some of the themes the movie explored that were taboo breaking at the time are more commonplace now, it has aged very well.

The Extras

The Blu-ray is a Sapphire Series, which sounds impressive, but in reality it is just shovelware, mostly. There's an audio commentary track with the director, Sam Mendes, and the screenwriter, Alan Ball. The former is more active than the latter, but the pair of Oscar winners create a track that fans of the movie will absolutely want to check out. American Beauty Look Closer... is a 22 minute making of featurette, which is pretty standard stuff, but in-depth enough to be worth checking out. Finally, there's just over an hour of storyboards to screen comparisons with audio commentary by Sam Mendes and Conrad L. Hall, both of whom won Oscars for this film.

The DVD also had some DVD-Rom extras, but those have not been ported over.

As for the film's technical presentation... It is a low-budget, dialogue driven film, so expectations shouldn't get too out of hand. The detail is good, but not always great, colors are strong, as are the black levels. There are a few issues, including some grain and some digital manipulation, but overall it is solid for this type of film. The audio is clear, if uncomplex, which is what you would expect from a film like this.

It is shovelware, however, and $20 is expense for shovelware.

The Verdict

American Beauty's Bl-ray debut isn't something you will pop into your machine to show off your home theater system, nor is it a bargain basement price. That said, the film itself is nearly flawless and definitely worth picking up. However, if there were some new extras on the disc, like a 10th anniversary retrospective, it could have been a contender for Pick of the Week.


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