American Beauty

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Alan Ball
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards

Rated R, 121 minutes. (1999)

Lester Burnham knows he's lost something, although he's a little fuzzy about exactly what it is. It might be his whole sense of purpose but it could just as easily be the spare keys to the car. He's so numbed by life in striving, soulless suburbia that he's lost the ability to tell the difference - or to care.

Kevin Spacey's Lester is at the center of American Beauty, the fascinating, funny, disturbing drama that's already receiving Oscar buzz. The film walks a fine line between satirizing middle class angst and revealing the real pain just beneath the bland surfaces. It's also darkly comic, especially as Spacey's character is shaken out of his lethargy and embraces his inner wiseass.

Lester's transformation begins when he catches a glimpse of blonde, luscious cheerleader Mena Suvari, a friend of his sullen 16-year-old daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Suddenly he's a horny teenager again, indulging in rose-petal-strewn masturbation fantasies and pumping iron to impress the trash-talking teen goddess.

It's a considerable achievement of American Beauty that it acknowledges how inappropriate Lester's fixation is without making him totally ridiculous. The film's title, like the film itself, is only partially ironic: Suvari's Angela, despite her foul mouth, hypocrisy and materialism, is indeed an American beauty - and more authentic than the exquisite red roses grown by Lester's wife, played by Annette Bening. Carolyn Burnham is a self-hating real estate agent trying so hard to be perfect that she's squeezed the life out of everything around her.

Nor are the Burnhams the weirdest people on screen. The couple's new next-door neighbors include a homophobic retired Marine colonel who collects Nazi memorabilia (Chris Cooper), his near-catatonic wife (Alison Janney) and their teenage son Ricky (Wes Bentley). Ricky may well be the film's real hero, notwithstanding that he's a highly successful drug dealer with a serious case of video voyeurism. His saving grace, and the film's, is that he's aware of beauty - both its power to disturb and its power to redeem.

Credit for making this point without preaching should go to screenwriter Alan Ball and especially to first-time film director Sam Mendes. Mendes' theater experience, directing the Nicole Kidman Blue Room and the still-running revival of Cabaret, showed his talent for striking visual compositions and his touch with actors. Both are evident here as well: in collaboration with cinematographer Conrad Hall, he's made American Beauty, well, beautiful.

Mendes also deserves credit for an ensemble of performers who rarely strike a false note. Spacey was born to play Lester: his dark, dead eyes and pathetic half-smile are perfect for the first part of the film, and his talent for deadpan verbal comedy enlivens the rest.

I also doubt Bening has ever been better, in what's arguably a tougher, less sympathetic role. (Spacey may be a middle-aged sexual predator but he also narrates the movie, giving us a privileged window into his fears and frustrations). Bening makes us see the demons that drive this overachiever, and lets us feel her panic as Spacey's transformation topples her house of cards.

If I have any complaints about the film, it's that the teenagers are sometimes a bit too sensitive and wise for their years - it's almost Rebel Without a Cause, with its saintly teens and hypocritical parents. The film's ending is also a bit melodramatic, though it works within the overall structure. But these really are quibbles: American Beauty is one of the best American dramas of the year.

(This article originally appeared in Films in Review, www.filmsinreview.com)

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