An acerbic, darkly comic critique of how social conventions can lead people into false, sterile and emotionally stunted lives, “American Beauty” is a real American original. Multilayered, bracingly resourceful and tweaked to push its many brash ideas to the edge and beyond, this independent-minded feature represents a stunning card of introduction for two cinematic freshmen, screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes. Unusually off-center for a major studio venture, this DreamWorks release will spark a raft of critical hosannas and play exceedingly well to sophisticated audiences attuned to the film’s caustic wit and mischievous sensibility. But breaking through to the mainstream public will prove a formidable, and likely hopelessly uphill, task indeed.
The landscape of Ball’s story is the familiar one of small-town America, and the initial take on the subject is the equally familiar one of houses with white picket fences and perfectly manicured gardens providing deceptive facades for lives wracked by hostility, tension, noncommunication and perversity. Fortunately, this view is intended not as a revelation but as a given, a starting point for a subtle and acutely judged tale in which nearly every important character metamorphoses in an utterly unpredictable way.
Calmly observant narration by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) informs at the outset that, in less than a year from the start of the story, he’ll be dead. “Of course, I don’t know that yet,” he quips as he and his family are trotted out. Lester is a self-described loser, having lost interest in his job at an advertising magazine as well as in any meaningful relationship with his beautiful, high-strung, real estate agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and sullen high school-age daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). Family life is a sham for all of them, and they deal with it in different ways: Lester admits it, Carolyn refuses to face it, and Jane is just waiting it out until she can fly the coop.
Threatened with dismissal from his job, hangdog Lester finds things begin changing for him when he becomes smitten by Jane’s best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), a blond Lolita with sex on the brain. Exhilarated by the ludicrous prospect of seducing her, Lester begins obsessively pumping iron and fuels his youthful state of mind by smoking dope with a strange young man, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who has just moved into the house next door with his father (Chris Cooper), a recently retired Marine Corps colonel, and shut-down mother (Allison Janney).
Ricky frequently takes surreptitious video footage of Jane, and when she calls him on it, an unlikely but oddly convincing romantic friendship begins blossoming that finally gives Jane a release for her emotional frustration. Carolyn, for her part, seeks an outlet in the most conventional manner, lurching into a motel-room affair with the debonair “king” of local real estate, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Evidently the only well-adjusted and relatively happy people in the neighborhood are “Jim and Jim” (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards), a gay couple with whom Lester takes up jogging.
One of the film’s constant sources of delight and surprise is the way characters both hide and reveal their private interests, and how they are often perceived and misjudged by others. It is not giving away too much or going too far into the story’s many mysteries to say that Lester can approach serenity and even a state of grace despite his initial wormlike status; that Ricky confidently pursues a secret life in spite of close surveillance from his martinet father, who forces his son to submit to regular urine tests for drug use; that Carolyn’s materialist preoccupation has, in fact, become her substance, and that Jane’s amorphous personality is susceptible to being shaped in just about any direction by the first strong personality she meets.
Consistently provocative and devilishly amusing through the first hour, pic clicks into high gear midway when Lester and Carolyn finally have it out. They don’t declare war, exactly, but Lester decides to let down any pretense to responsibility or normalcy in order to do his own thing as he did when he was 20, carefree and full of expectation. Blackmailing his boss for a big severance package, he hilariously takes a gig at the job at which he was always happiest, flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant, buys his dream car and openly smokes weed whenever he wants. His new freewheeling approach to life makes him giddy, so much so that he believes he and his wife can revive their long-buried sexual relationship. But Carolyn and Jane are appalled at his breezy, tell-it-like-it-is attitude, fomenting a mood of anxious melodrama leading to the event promised by the opening narration.
Ball, a playwright and TV writer (“Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill”), has composed a script as fresh and distinctive as any produced in the States in recent memory. The film constantly analyzes the characters’ actions and holds them in bold relief just as it moves the story along at a brisk clip, a considerable achievement in itself. Beyond that, the dialogue is tart and the characters are well and deeply drawn, endowed with an inner life that allows the viewer to understand their often rash and unpredictable behavior.
Main exception to this is Carolyn, who so vehemently holds to her limited beliefs and system of denial (“I refuse to be a victim!” she rants at her lowest ebb) that she can’t really develop or change. Script’s other significant flaw is making the climactic drama hinge upon the sexuality of one character, whose repression smacks of hoary Freudianism. This development provokes momentary disappointment but doesn’t detract too much from the full-bodied feel the picture leaves one with at fade-out.
Mendes, the hottest young British theater director of recent years, on the basis of “Cabaret” and “The Blue Room,” displays a very sure hand in his first film. As precise and controlled in its effects as his legit work, “American Beauty” is stylized in its images and humor, and Mendes has been exceedingly fortunate in working with a cinematographer as skillful as vet Conrad L. Hall, who is unsurpassed in his ability to augment the meaning of the material he films by finding its perfect visual correlative.
The ensemble of actors here could not be better. Uncharacteristically frumpy in the opening reels, Spacey hums along with droll line readings before jumpstarting to antic but hardly overdone life upon receiving his wake-up call. His handling of innuendo, subtle sarcasm and blunt talk is scintillating, but he trumps these aces with the genuine feeling with which he endows Lester’s efforts to win back Carolyn and the equanimity with which he considers his fate. Bening, perfectly cast as the perfect wife, goes well beyond the expected in such a role and is almost scary at times in the way she defends herself. As a closed-up girl, Birch gradually blossoms in ways that are impressive but not always pretty, Suvari socks over her role as a frank-talking nymphet, while Bentley is sensational as the creepy kid living a complex life. Cooper is chillingly convincing as the tyrannical father, Janney stands out as his ghostly wife, and Gallagher cuts the right figure as a smooth-talking cock of the walk.
Naomi Shohan’s production design and Julie Weiss’ costumes enhance the film’s look of designed reality, while Thomas Newman’s score and the many adroitly chosen song snippets often create ironic counterpoint to the exceptionally tart and entertaining proceedings.