The success of American Beauty 720p Full HD Movie, the cinematic debut of the young British stage director Sam Mendes, has compounded at an astounding, unceasing rate since its US release. Initially regarded as a witty, literate ensemble piece to be cautiously compared to Ang Lee’s Ice Storm, it has become a gigantic screen achievement, now coming hailed as the first massive classic of the new decade, crowned with Golden Globes and soon, definitely, Oscars.
I felt it made a stunning impact at the London film festival in November and although it does not quite withstand the scrutiny of a second viewing, including as it does ingredients of redundancy and purity, it is definitely a movie of incredible flair and formal, compositional brilliance. Mendes has assembled his actors like an extremely classy theatrical cast, and, with the help of Alan Ball’s terrific screenplay, conjured from them superbly modulated complementary performances, praised by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as the most unfortunate middle-aged couple in all suburbia.
Spacey joins the role of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged ad executive who despises his job and his life, whose wife and daughter loathe him, and for whom jerking off in the shower is the only pleasurable experience of the day. (At night, this indulgence is secretly enlarged to the nuptial bed next to his sleeping wife.)
His daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is moody, mopey, grungey and secretly saving up for breast augmentation surgery, of which she has no obvious need, as Mendes later unveils in a sequence in which Jane takes her top off for the sake of Ricky, the boy next door who is obsessed with filming her with his Sony DV camera. It is one of many erotic gags in this film, through which voyeurism is willfully confused with rapture.
But the real deal is Carolyn, a desperate real-estate saleswoman – Lester’s uptight wife. This is a wonderful study in sorrow from Annette Bening, who gives her best performance since The Grifters. Bening’s cheerful, chipper keeping-up-appearances smile has her crow’s feet crinkle and clench almost out loud. It is a mask of dysfunction and despair; and there is a compelling scene in which she fails to sell a tatty family home because of its inadequately tropical “lagoon-style” pool. After the contemptuous would-be buyers have left, she bursts into hysterical, self-loathing tears, while slapping herself across the face: “Shut up! Shut up! You’re weak!”
They all are. Peeping, wanking, crying and grieving, Mendes’s characters and their strange neighbors drift through a bright suburban moonscape. This is the battle for their hidden lives, and secret, unacknowledged desires – erotic and stuffs – which manifest themselves outwardly in little jolts of disorientation and inattention, the suburban moment when, like Nabokov add in Lolita, one unfortunately sweeps the refrigerator and defrosts the driveway.
But all this horrible serenity is blown away when Lester uproariously steps into a liberating mid-life crisis. He drops his job, smokes high-quality dope got from Ricky and conceives an obsession with Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane’s incredibly blonde and sexy best friend.
All this is managed with magnificent confidence by Mendes, who shows an awe-inspiringly precocious mastery of technique, in part due to canny reliance on his veteran cinematographer Conrad L Hall. Opinion will split on the dream-setpieces in American Beauty 720p which – quite artificially – signify the roses of Carolyn’s pure garden into the movie’s central poetic motif. As visionary enactments of sensual languor, they are artificial, pedantic, and a little bit soft-core, but surely entertaining and ingenious.
American Beauty 720p has its limits, and its flaws. As a trip into the troubled heart of American suburbia, it has nothing near the power and conviction of, for instance, Todd Solondz’s Happiness or Alexander Payne’s Election. Actually, there is a vague footprint of saccharine in the movie. When Ricky shows us an 11-minute video he has made of a plastic bag blowing in the wind, we are apparently invited to endorse his glassy-eyed assessment of it as a wonderful epiphany of natural beauty. So much beauty in the world, says the man, that his heart almost crashes.
Yet Ricky is, ultimately, meant to be a drug dealer, who invites Jane to escape with him to New York City, where they will live on his earnings. This movie makes that seem like a wonderfully romantic, almost bucolic existence. (I was reminded of a line in Doug Liman’s underrated Go: “Yeah, right, he’s the good drug dealer…”) Moreover, there is a structural problem in the fact that a shot has been cut from the ending scene, without which neither the pre-credit one, nor the denouement, actually make satisfactory sense.
But imperfections and all, American Beauty 720p is brilliant, exhilarating, effervescent moviemaking, and a memorable debut from Sam Mendes for whom an Academy Award – along with prizes for Spacey and Bening – would now seem to be in order.