Sam Mendes' American Beauty has some pretty ugly things to say about the American Dream.
Thursday, September 30, 1999
Sam Mendes, the theatrical director who recently shepherded Nicole Kidman to new heights of stagebound erotica in The Blue Room, tackles his film debut with gusto, alternately savaging the American Dream and the myth of the suburbs and then offering a flicker of hope. It''s a heady, intoxicating mix, made all the more so by the ecstatic, swirling cinematography of Conrad L. Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Marathon Man) and a quietly seething score by Thomas Newman. It''s all of a piece, and though a few of those pieces don''t work as well as others, as a whole, it''s tough, funny stuff.
Kevin Spacey, an actor whose mastery of the unspoken internal dialogue and weasely demeanor is second to none, plays Lester Burnham, a hack magazine writer who, approaching middle age, suddenly realizes that somewhere along the line he stumbled and fell, without knowing, onto the slippery slope of complacent mediocrity. This revelation arrives while he and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a rabidly materialistic, go-getting real estate agent, are watching their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) cheerlead at her high school. Lester''s eye falls on Jane''s best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), all blond insouciance and ripe voluptuousness, and lingers, smitten. In very short order, Lester is pumping iron in the nude, zipping about in his new vintage Firebird, and smoking up a ganja storm with the new neighbor kid next door. It''s a midlife crisis of such intensity that it throws you for a moment: Who is this creep? Turns out he''s the soul of American Beauty, that''s who.
This is Lester''s (and Spacey''s) film, but it''s also his wife''s, and here Mendes stumbles. Bening''s character is not only a foil, but a nasty one: Nobody seems willing to give her a break, least of all the filmmakers, and she becomes a shrill parody of herself by the end. Not so for Jane''s budding paramour Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a voyeuristic fetishist with a camcorder permanently affixed to his arm. Quietly intense, he''s Lester''s flipside, and Bentley is mesmerizing. In fact, there''s precious little about American Beauty that doesn''t engage the mind and tweak the eye, from the production design on down. Its message of redemption may be a bit muddled--Lester doesn''t exactly triumph in the end--but the filmmakers seem to be saying, hey, that''s life. And it is.
American Beauty (four Stars)
Rated R, 118 min.
Director Sam Mendes
Starring Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Sam Robards, Kevin Spacey, Wes Bentley, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney
Where Galaxy 6
When See Movie Times