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Blu-ray Review: American Beauty

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The Film

1999’s American Beauty is not a very deep or interesting film. Despite its ruminations on the meaning of life and the wasted living inherent in bourgeois routine, the film doesn’t have a lot to offer beyond its impossibly smug surface predilections.

Actually, I take that back. The film does have a lot to offer, just not any combination that galvanizes into a truly memorable cinematic experience. Conrad Hall’s photography is first-rate, and director Sam Mendes displays an enormous amount of vision in his directorial debut. Kevin Spacey is also excellent as Lester Burnham, a man entranced by boredom until he’s shaken out of it by a shot in the arm of sex, drugs and freedom.

Too bad all of these elements are betrayed by a rotten core, just like the one the film posits is at the heart of suburbia — Alan Ball’s self-satisfied script that would occasionally be truly painful to endure if it wasn’t being performed by such capable actors. In Ball’s world, a white picket fence exists as the bars that keep the soul imprisoned, and frankly, it gets a bit ridiculous. I’m not saying suburbia can’t be soul crushing, but the script seemingly has nowhere to go beyond that premise.

Instead, we get a film that is utterly sympathetic to Lester, who has no redeeming qualities either before or after his transformation. Before, he’s a corporate whore incapable of displaying emotion. After, he’s pretty much a druggie perv. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch Spacey play that up, but the film’s simultaneous vilification of his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), for exhibiting very similar behavior smacks of a strange double standard.

Outside the confines of the Burnham family (Thora Birch is solid as the misfit daughter Jane, by the way), the characterizations become more absurd and less insightful — Mena Suvari as a sex-obsessed high schooler, Chris Cooper as a gay-hating military vet, Wes Bentley as the all-seeing conscience of the neighborhood. They exist as “dark secrets of the suburbs,” not actual people.

American Beauty just doesn’t hold up under any real scrutiny. It’s got flashes of really smart filmmaking (which is sort of emblematic of Mendes’s career since), but it’s mostly empty. The stranglehold it once held on pop culture has certainly begun to fade, and chances are, the film won’t have left much of a visible impression at all 30 years from now.

The Blu-ray Disc

American Beauty is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. While the disc isn’t exactly a botched job, it’s far from the revelatory experience it could’ve been. Hall’s photography is the film’s greatest strength, but it’s surprising how off-putting some of the shots can be in this visual presentation, which often lacks color consistency and overall sharpness. Sure, it’s an improvement over the DVD, but it seems frankly unacceptable that a film barely a decade old should still have a number of speckles from the print that make their way onto the digital version. The disc also has trouble resolving certain darker scenes, where blacks tend to look more muddy or hazy than sharp and dark. It’s not a total loss, as certain scenes look better than others, and the signature red rose petals are almost always presented strikingly, with excellent color definition.

The audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD track that is also not an earth-shattering improvement, although there’s a decent sense of space with ambient sound and Thomas Newman’s score (which also sounds completely smug to me) sounds great. Dialogue is clean and clear, and several moments of violence lend the mix some heft.

Special Features

Despite being another entry in Paramount’s Sapphire Series line, there’s nothing new here in the way of extras. Unlike a lot of films that saw an initial DVD release around the turn of the millennium, American Beauty never was revisited for two-disc special edition DVD release, so there’s really nothing even remotely new here. Mendes and Ball feature on a commentary track along with a standard making-of fluff piece and a solid storyboard comparison feature that runs more than an hour long. All of these features remain in standard def, while two different trailers get the upgrade.

The Bottom Line

Even for fans of the film, it’s hard to really recommend this Blu-ray. Sure, it’s an improvement over the DVD in terms of picture and audio quality, but there are probably about 500 other catalog titles that you’d be better served upgrading before this one.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.