The DVD premiere for this year’s winner of the Best Picture Academy Award (among four other statuettes) had been a highly anticipated event–that is, until word came out this summer that the disc would not include the film’s now-legendary lost scenes, including a more lengthy finish. Nonetheless, Sam Mendes’ dark, seriocomic tale of suburban family dysfunction being a popular and highly esteemed film, DreamWorks’ disc is still eagerly (if not fervently) awaited, and it’s a good, solid edition that will satisfy–though not completely.
The no-frills menu design (reminiscent of that of the disc of DreamWorks’ award contender of the previous year, Saving Private Ryan) are perfectly in line with the film’s theme of finding beauty in the simplest and least likely of places. The main menu is perfection: the film’s title at the top and the options at the bottom, sandwiching the image of a television screen playing the film’s memorable image of a plastic bag dancing in the wind. As the sounds of Thomas Newman’s Oscar-nominated score play in the background, it’s a haunting welcome to a haunting film. Newman’s music also back up the secondary menus, which are all static save for the animated scene selection screens.
With the excised footage nowhere to be found, the supplements are, for the most part, commonplace: the film’s complete production notes, including full cast biographies, are offered, polished over to reflect the numerous award wins; two theatrical trailers are also showcased. The 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, American Beauty : Look Closer…, digs a bit deeper and is a lot more nicely produced than similar extras on other discs, but that’s because of its origins as a piece of awards campaign propaganda–the feature (infomercial, really) had aired on Los Angeles cable systems as part of the Oscar push (a tactic originated by Miramax). The featurette also offers a hint of the lost footage; a couple of cast interviews take place on a courtroom set (the most major cut subplot was a murder trial).
The one extra that really offers a lot to chew on is a one-hour long storyboard presentation, in which Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall compare and contrast the original visual plan with what ended up on screen. It is interesting to see just how meticulously Mendes planned out the film’s visuals considering the film is remembered more as one of ideas, themes, and characters than images. Insightful stuff, but there is one big technical shortcoming: while this segment can be paused, there is no way to reverse or fast-forward through it, and if one is to stop the disc, there is no picking up where one left off.
On the commentary track, Mendes begins by saying that he hopes he isn’t “too boring.” Indeed he isn’t, but he is a bit dry and repetitive as he continually praises stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as well as the lighting by Hall when not imparting interesting info (one nugget: he often cut the first and last lines of the scenes during the editing process). That’s more than I can say for his commentary partner, screenwriter Alan Ball, who says so little as to be a virtual non-entity.
The official reason for the non-inclusion of the deleted scenes was that Mendes felt that watching them would detract from the existing film. However, his commentary suggests that their absence really wasn’t his idea; there are a few moments where he mentions cut scenes and shots and how one can see them in an outtakes section–which simply doesn’t exist on the finished disc. Perhaps it was DreamWorks’ idea, for the company decided to include both Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks, in the process using up a lot of space. Indeed, the film sounds (and looks) great, but I’m sure I speak for all fans of the film that I would sacrifice a little sound and picture to catch a glimpse of what ended up on the cutting room floor.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS 5.1 Surround; English 5.1 Digital Surround; English Dolby Surround; English Subtitles; DVD-ROM features.