Reel Rumbles: Magnolia vs. American Beauty
Two artistic films from 1999 face off. Both films had strong showings at the 72nd Academy Awards. These two films have similar themes and undertones about family relationships and how the parent-child-relationship is harmful in a person’s life. Which dark, yet artistic interpretation of those topics that the films portrayed did a better job?
Round 1: Story
American Beauty focuses on one man’s life in Lester Burnham played by Kevin Spacey. The story chronicle’s Burnham’s life where he is in a mid-life crisis. Burnham reacts to this mid-life crisis in a very aggressive manner, where he quits his job, ridicules his wife and becomes infatuated with his daughter’s high school friend. The challenge that American Beauty overcomes, is that while Burnham does all of these looked down upon things, the story successfully conjures Burnham as an admirable character to the audience.
Magnolia’s story is a more discrete one. The film follows a number of characters through pivotal points in their life. It follows a police officer investigating a disturbance at a women’s apartment. That woman was yelling at her estranged father, accusing her father of making unwanted sexual advances toward her, while the father denies the claims. The police officer becomes highly attracted to her and asks her on a date. The father being accused is the host of a long-running children’s trivia show, while the current star of the show is a boy genius – a very nice yet shy boy – whose father’s motives are impure and only seems interested in the potential prize money. A former boy genius, Donnie Smith, watches from a bar who has a crush with the male bartender, the bartender has braces, so that entices Donnie to get braces that he does not need.
The show’s former producer, Earl Partridge, is dying of cancer. His much younger trophy wife, Linda, collects his pain prescriptions while being cared for by his male nurse, Phil Parma. Earl makes his last dying request to Phil. To find his son, Frank Mackey, who is a motivational speaker to men, helping them pick up women. Earl abandoned Frank and his dying mother many years ago.
Both films deal with the premise of family, and the potential ripple effect of family hardship. Magnolia gives the audience a multitude of perspectives with all the different characters, while American Beauty mainly focuses on just one family. In this battle, less is more truly reigns true as American Beauty takes round one.
Round 2: Ensemble Cast
In Magnolia, Director Paul Thomas Anderson brings his usual ensemble cast with John C. Reilly, Juliane Moore, William H. Macy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Tom Cruise is also added in the mix as he won a Golden Globe for his performance. Each actor brings a unique and fresh take on their specific character. No character in this movie shines over the other, almost bringing a competitive vibe to the movie as each actor tries to best each other.
American Beauty stars Hollywood juggernaut, Kevin Spacey, who brought audiences one of the most memorable performances in recent memory. Annette Bening also gives a memorizing performance as Burnham’s wife, bringing redeeming qualities to a character that most other actresses couldn’t pull off.
Magnolia wins round two quite convincingly, the all-around talent of a stacked cast is tough to compete with. The realism and darkness each actor brings to their own character are refreshing. Their performances are the main reason the audience stays intrigued throughout the film.
Round 3: Artistic Direction
Paul Thomas Anderson always brings his audience a unique take on film; using long shots that show the development of the scene and building the suspense with immense success. The message that the director is trying to convey to his audience in complex ways; using a quick prelude in the beginning of the movie that doesn’t directly connect with the film itself. The messaging in the ending, with the frogs falling from the sky, left viewers with an open interpretation of what that actually means. Paul Thomas Anderson’s intent was to have audiences debating after the movie was over.
American Beauty director, Sam Mendes, took a more visual artistic approach with his film. The symbolism of a rose is prevalent throughout the movie. Whether it’s Lester Burnham’s dream with his dream girl in a bathtub of roses, or Lester lying in bed with roses raining down on him.
When encompassing all the attributes of a successful artistic direction American Beauty is the victor here. Considering the visual cinematography, the musical score, and Sam Mendes’ unique vision, it puts American Beauty in a league of its own.
And the winner is…
Both films are fantastic. Both present provocative stories with relatable and likable characters. It’s tough to find the flaws in the performances in acting with either film.
American Beauty edged out Magnolia because it mastered the technique of addressing a serious issue by not being too upfront, yet not being overly complex at the same time.
The global chart favors American Beauty.
- Global Ranking: 192
- Wins 58% of its match-ups
- 775 users have it at #1
- 11,486 users have it in their top 20
- Global Ranking: 542
- Wins 51% of its match-ups
- 265 users have it #1
- 3,214 have it in their top 20