“American Beauty”

Kevin Spacey keeps a biting suburban satire from eating itself alive.

Topics: Alan Ball, Satire, Movies,

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey)
is dead at the beginning of “American Beauty.” He tells us so, apparently speaking in
voice-over from some unspecific Great Beyond. He is most
certainly dead at the end, when his whole life literally
flashes before his eyes (a grievous, laughable filmmaking
mistake). In between, we see the last year of Lester’s life,
as he struggles to awaken from the stupor of 20 years in the
suburbs, trapped in his loveless family and his meaningless
job. To Carolyn (Annette Bening), his judgmental harpy of a
wife, and Jane (Thora Birch), his glum and uncommunicative
teenage daughter, Lester appears to be in the grip of an
especially ridiculous midlife crisis. He quits his job,
buys a 1970s muscle car, begins lifting weights and smoking
pot, and develops a Humbert Humbert-like obsession with one
of Jane’s classmates. But for Lester, this is a battle of
mythic and heroic proportions. He is trying to save his
soul, trying to prepare himself to face death — although he
doesn’t know it’s coming so soon — with no regrets.

Based on the impassioned post-screening discussion I enjoyed
with three other viewers, “American Beauty” will sharply
divide its audience. That’s usually a good thing. A strident
suburban satire plagued by an exaggerated tone and multiple
layers of implausibility, “American Beauty” accomplishes
more in its incoherence than most Hollywood movies do in
tidy, soulless success. It’s remarkable that any movie
that’s so ambitious and angry — and that treats ordinary
American life so seriously — made it through the mainstream
production channels in the first place. Plenty of
“independent” films aren’t half this daring. For all its
flaws, “American Beauty” offers one of the best ensemble
casts you’ll see in any American movie this year. Side by
side with its false notes and awkward missteps, it has
moments of startling pathos and piercing, painful hilarity.

Director Sam Mendes, best known for his recent Broadway
productions of “Cabaret” and David Hare’s “The Blue Room,”
makes his film debut here. And though he is capable of subtlety — the
budding love affair between Jane and Ricky (Wes Bentley),
the loner/voyeur who lives next door, is handled with great
tenderness — Mendes’ basic idea here is to turn up the heat
on Alan Ball’s script well past the boiling point. When
Lester first sees Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane’s blond
nymphet pal, cheerleading at a basketball game, he instantly
goes all goggle-eyed and travels into an elaborate fantasy
world in which Angela’s body virtually explodes with rose
petals. I suppose Mendes wants to make the point that Angela
is more the trigger than the cause of Lester’s
transformation. But this aesthetic vision feels a long way
from actual lust, which is most often a nagging, grinding,
insatiable sensation, more like a chronic infection than a
seizure.

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Liberated from his customary role as an inscrutable
evildoer, Spacey turns in a richly comic performance as a
man visibly intoxicated by his every impulse. He gets
high with Ricky outside a horrific dinner party where
Carolyn is shamelessly schmoozing the self-styled “King of
Real Estate” (Peter Gallagher). Lester blackmails his boss out of $60,000 and
drives home singing along with “American Woman.” He lifts
weights in the nude after hearing Angela teasingly tell Jane
she thinks her dad is hot. (Spacey’s legion of admirers will
find plenty to enjoy here.) Even sprawled on the couch in
jeans, attacking Carolyn with a remote-controlled toy truck
like a rambunctious toddler, he seems infused with an
inexplicable glee. He can’t tell good ideas
from bad ones, and relishes the fact that he doesn’t know
what will happen next.

Carolyn is a much bigger problem, although I don’t know
whether to blame Mendes, the script or Bening, whose
formidable acting chops are expended on a feverish, sexually
repressed demon whose few tiny moments of possible
redemption are undermined by burlesque. This is a woman who,
as Lester tells us in his opening voice-over, has matching
pruning shears and gardening clogs. In case we haven’t
figured out that she’s the embodiment of American
materialism, the script lays it out for us. When Carolyn
snaps at Lester for nearly spilling his drink on the couch,
he responds, “This is just stuff. And it’s become more
important to you than living. And, honey, that’s nuts.” She
literally beats herself up after failing to sell a house –
her ad describing a “lagoon-like pool” has gotten her in
trouble — and prostitutes herself to a rival
realtor. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Carolyn hates both
herself and Lester so much. But both parties in a dreadful
marriage are always simultaneously the authors and victims
of their situation, and absent some understanding of that,
“American Beauty” turns Carolyn into a misogynist caricature
for no good purpose.

Similarly, the film’s supporting characters, although all
well-played, are a mixed bag. Birch is terrific as the moody
and absent Jane, who has long ago given up on both her
parents (although it’s highly unlikely that this disaffected
girl would be a cheerleader). If we can guess almost from
the outset that Angela’s junior-sexpot image masks
tremendous insecurity, Suvari (“American Pie”)
plays the role with highly convincing hunger and depth. Bentley, with his
chiseled jaw and limpid, almost feminine eyes,
brings a soulful intensity to the mysterious Ricky. But as
much as I wanted to like and believe in Ricky, an
openhearted spiritual seeker who remains undamaged by the
constant abuse he suffers from his Marine-officer father
(Chris Cooper), the film asks him to carry far too much
freight. We’re expected to believe that he’s dealing awesome
pot and compiling an immense library of peeping-tom videos
under his dad’s nose, and to accept his stoner-mystic
insights that there is “an entire life behind things” and
that “an incredibly benevolent force” speaks to him.

Amid the emphatic and often original stew of vitriol and
humor in “American Beauty,” it gets pretty hard to tell
whether Mendes and Ball are actually trying to say
something, and if so, what that might be. The fuzzy, lyrical
intrusions of New Age spirituality that bracket the story,
although strikingly at odds with the overall tone, suggest
that there is more meaning in the universe than in Lester’s
wasted, tragicomic life. Like the film’s rather forced
obsession with homosexuality — centered on Cooper’s
paranoid, homophobic colonel — these moments seem both
revelatory and opaque, as if momentarily exposing themes the
rest of the movie takes great pains to bury. Perhaps future
film scholars can decipher “American Beauty” as a Buddhist
allegory of existence, or a critique of heterosexual
manhood. For now it remains a puzzling dream, vivid in
detail and overly obvious in symbolism, fueled by
half-digested lumps of malice and wonder.

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