After Cinematical's new "Movies I Will Never See" series elicited a strong variety of reactions – both positive and negative - from readers, it occurred to us that there's a huge, untapped reservoir of existing films that we have actually seen, and it would probably be at least as interesting, if not more so, to go back and see how well they held up in the years since their release. These may be acclaimed classics that audiences simply haven't revisited on a regular basis, or condemned failures that might deserve a second look; but setting a statute of limitations of five years or more old (meaning before '04), we're going back to see how good are the bad movies, and how bad are the good ones - in other words testing their shelf life.
After last week's look at Titanic, it seemed somewhat appropriate to revisit other noteworthy Oscar winners. But while there were certainly a wealth of questionably worthy titles celebrated in the Academy's history, one in particular seemed especially ripe for consideration: American Beauty, Sam Mendes' directorial debut. Perhaps it's because so many movies followed its lead in deconstructing suburbia, or perhaps it's just because it's been ten years, but Mendes' film doesn't seem as relevant, important, or even as good as it once was – which is why we recently popped it in the DVD player for another look.
The Facts: Released in 1999, Mendes got the job directing at the personal recommendation of executive producer Steven Spielberg. With only a production budget of $15 million, the film grossed more than $350 million worldwide. Currently the film still maintains an 89 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film won five, including for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Original Screenplay and Actor (for Spacey). It also won three Golden Globes.
What Still Works: More than anything else, Kevin Spacey's performance, which is the kind of transformation-by-degrees that really defines great acting, but seems to seldom get recognized. In fact, the entire ensemble is truly spectacular: as his troubled daughter, Thora Birch announced herself as an adult actress playing Jane; although she successfully played virginal and wholesome the same year in American Pie, Mena Suvari never found a filmmaker who better used her kewpie-sexpot charm; Wes Bentley gave a really powerful and promising (albeit sadly yet-undelivered) performance as Ricky; and Annette Bening exuded self-loathing as Spacey's on screen wife.
What Doesn't Work: The original thing that didn't work, that terrible voiceover that announced Spacey's character would be dead in a year, still doesn't, and especially now it sounds unnecessarily condescending given how uplifting Lester Burnham's transformation is supposed to be. But the thing that remains strongest even in fans memories is the film's condemnation or at least criticism of suburbia, and with the benefit of hindsight (and again, a number of other films examining the same themes) there's a "duh" factor to the whole domestic self-loathing thing.
(SPOILER ALERT!) Further, the murder element that ties everything together at the end of the movie is kind of unnecessary, because it seems like a deliberate effort to avoid something clean or satisfying; particularly having seen the film before, it's obvious Mendes wants there to be a sense of mystery who killed Lester, cutting back and forth between different storylines where there are implications and intentional misdirections. But the homophobic closeted gay military man is truly where the film falls flattest, not just because it's painfully obvious and kind of crass in the context of the rest of the film's subtlety, but because it feels like a deus ex machina that connects those different strands in a pretty sucky way – in other words, without really creating a sort of thematic or even emotional dovetail that might have really earned the film classic status.
What's The Verdict: American Beauty holds up about half of the time, which, quite frankly, was at least a quarter more than I expected. What's maybe saddest about its success is that it effectively made Spacey only a leading man, when his strengths have always been in character work; that said, he is so good throughout the entire film that it's not just a genuinely Oscar-worthy performance, but truly one of the standard-bearer portrayals that actors should look to for inspiration. (It still brings tears to my eyes to watch him enjoy the discovery that his alienated daughter thinks she's in love.) Otherwise, the story is sometimes clunky (the fantasies become redundant after a while) and the film's emotional threads don't quite come together as strongly as they could, but overall this is a film that is worth revisiting now - even if in another decade it may or may not be.