American Beauty

Wednesday September 15, 1999

     Unsettling, unnerving, undefinable, "American Beauty" avoids quick and easy categorization. A quirky and disturbing take on modern American life energized by bravura performances from Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, "Beauty" is a blood-chilling dark comedy with unexpected moments of both fury and warmth, a strange, brooding and very accomplished film that sets us back on our heels from its opening frames.
     "This is my neighborhood, this is my street, this is my life," Lester Burnham (Spacey) says in neutral voice-over as the camera narrows in from an aerial perspective to his red suburban front door as he delivers shock No. 1: "I'm 42 years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead. Of course, I don't know that yet. In a way, I'm dead already."
     To inform us that, as in "Sunset Boulevard," we're watching a film narrated by a corpse is a quick way to get everyone's attention, but "Beauty," the provocative debut for director Sam Mendes, goes further. Layered with surprises, at home in unfamiliar territory, this film more than doesn't let on what it's thinking or where it's going; it intentionally misleads with dramatic dodges and feints calculated to throw everyone off balance and keep them there.
     Whenever a film is this distinctive, it invariably starts with the writing. "Beauty" is the first feature by veteran TV writer Alan Ball ("Cybill" and the upcoming "Oh Grow Up"), and in its ability to make us uncomfortable by changing emotional colors as subtly and gradually as a kaleidoscope, it bears the hallmarks of someone pouring everything he felt constrained from doing in one medium into an extremely personal piece of work in another.
     "American Beauty's" subject is the hollow space behind the American dream, the frustrations that hide under the perfectly mannered surfaces of our lives. "Never underestimate the power of denial," one character says, but in some ways what we're shown is not the power but the price of denial, how a world without moorings, without honesty, without human connections turns everyone into a lost soul on the verge of a self-centered psychotic breakdown.
     Lester certainly fits that description when he takes us on a voice-over tour of his life. The first stop (and, he coolly informs us, the high point of his day) is Lester masturbating in his morning shower before putting in his time at a trade magazine called Media Monthly. His wife and daughter, Lester says, consider him "this gigantic loser," and, not really disagreeing, he tells people who've forgotten they've met him, "I wouldn't remember me either."
     Lester is equally savage about the other family members. Stepford Wife Carolyn (Bening) is a residential broker locked into a perennially losing battle with Buddy Kane, the self-proclaimed King of Real Estate (Peter Gallagher). She prefers elevator music during dinner and spends her spare time worrying about her furniture and growing roses. "See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs?" Lester asks witheringly. "That's not an accident."
     Then there's 16-year-old daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Unsmiling, insecure and ferociously unhappy, her sullen anger is as constant and unwavering as an eternal flame. "I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass," is Lester's cold-blooded assessment, "but I don't want to lie to her."
     These kinds of acerbic comments, while striking in their drop-dead glibness, are deceptive because they make "Beauty" seem more familiar than it is. We've all seen this kind of highly stylized verbal farce, complete with sarcastic line readings, but director Mendes has something more complex and more subversive in mind.
     Though he's only 34, the English director has already established himself in the theater, directing the Nicole Kidman-starring "The Blue Room" and a celebrated revival of "Cabaret." His accomplishment here is to capture and enhance the unlooked-for duality that is at the core of Ball's discomforting screenplay. For in addition to being stylized, "Beauty's" characters have an unmistakable sincerity about them; they manage to appear simultaneously as caricatured sendups and painfully real individuals. As their emotional valence fluctuates, so does our understanding of what is going on with them. Several different events unsettle the bitter and resentful lassitude into which the Burnham family has sunk, happenings that threaten to collapse the emotional walls the members have painstakingly created around themselves.
     Goaded by his wife to take an interest in their daughter's life, Lester accompanies Carolyn to a Rockwell High basketball game, where Jane is a member of a cheerleading squad called the Dancing Spartanettes. Desultorily watching their routine, Lester suddenly has a vision and, not unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, is instantly transformed. He sees Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) and nothing is the same.
     A fellow Spartanette and friend of Jane's, Angela is such a classic all-American blond (think angel) that Lester has erotic visions of her unclothed under layers of deep red rose petals. He immediately contrives to meet her, and his midlife fantasy of seducing Angela becomes so strong it galvanizes him to completely change his life.
     While wife Carolyn is too focused, in more ways than one, on real estate king Kane to notice what's going on, daughter Jane is horrified at her father's lust. "Could he be any more pathetic?" she disgustedly asks, but Angela seems to enjoy entertaining the idea. Used to guys drooling over her, she fears nothing in life more than being ordinary, and Lester's interest in her is proof of her special qualities.
     *
     Meanwhile, a different kind of dysfunctional family has moved in next door to the Burnhams, headed by a just-retired career military man who always introduces himself as "Col. Frank Fitts, U.S. Marine Corps" (Chris Cooper). But before we meet the colonel, his catatonic wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and their mysterious teenage son Ricky (Wes Bentley), we are aware of their presence when the film's point of view suddenly changes and Lester and his daughter are viewed through the lens of a digital camera.
     Ricky Fitts, it turns out, is a fanatic for video; it's his way of interfacing with a world and a father that have not come close to understanding him. He records everything; his room is lined with the discs he's filled with images, and right now there's nothing he wants to record more than Jane. He finds her interesting, he tells her, and despite Angela's horror and Ricky's Bible salesman way of dressing, Jane finds herself drawn to the one quality he has that she lacks: quiet but complete self-confidence.
     If there is any constant in "American Beauty's" story of how this island of lost souls resolves itself, it's that things rarely go where you think they will. Scenes ambush us out of nowhere, revealing both flash-floods of fury and frustration too powerful to contain, and moments of sadness, wistfulness, even hope that are both convincing and able to catch us completely unawares.
     With a film so delicately balanced, the quality of the acting is especially crucial, and it's hard to overstate how difficult these duality-laden roles are and how faultlessly the actors handle them. Bening's image-obsessed and frustrated wife, Birch's despairing daughter, Suvari's conniving proto-Lolita, these characters are all inhabited completely and convincingly.
     Equally effective are "Beauty's" two key males. Bentley, in a haunting role numerous young actors were after, brings a commanding but low-key intensity and intimacy to Ricky Fitts that never promises more than it can deliver. And Spacey's power is finally the energy that drives this film. It's not that we're always on his side--far from it--but that we can't help being involved in his quest to recover the ideals and enthusiasm that once animated his life.
     There is also a sense about "American Beauty" that it has paradoxically benefited from director Mendes' debut status, an anything's possible daring that was fortuitously married to his great experience with drama that enabled him to try for original emotional effects that might have daunted more experienced hands.
     Mendes was also shrewd in his choice of supporting staff, including highly regarded composer Thomas Newman and one of the great names of cinematography, the eight-time Oscar-nominated Conrad Hall, who gives the film a dreamlike quality set off by the right touch of cool, composed reality.
     It's also Hall, in a dialogue with fellow director of photography Haskell Wexler in a recent issue of American Cinematographer, who provides a key insight into this unusual film. Hall relates going to Mendes and saying, " 'I love this story and the project, but my God, how can you like these characters?' He told me, 'Well, Conrad, you have to like them. If you don't like them, we don't have a picture here.' " Against considerable odds, we do like them, and there definitely is a hell of a picture here.


American Beauty, 1999. R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content. A Jinks/Cohen Co. production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Directed by Sam Mendes. Produced by Bruce Cohen & Dan Jinks. Written by Alan Ball. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. Editors Tariq Anwar, Chris Greenbury. Production design Naomi Shohan. Costume design Julie Weiss. Music Thomas Newman. Art director David S. Lazan. Set decorator Jan K. Bergstrom. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham. Annette Bening as Carolyn Burnham. Thora Birch as Jane Burnham. Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts. Mena Suvari as Angela Hayes. Peter Gallagher as Buddy Kane. Allison Janney as Barbara Fitts. Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts.

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