The fall film season kicks off in high gear with American Beauty, a comedy of shocking gravity that comes front-loaded with advance raves and Oscar talk. Now the question is: Since buzz can lead to backlash — check those Blair Witch spoilsports — can Beauty stay unbruised? Let's hope so. Made for a $5 million pittance by the megabucks boys at DreamWorks — Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen — American Beauty is a triumph of acting, writing and directing that defies glib description. Is the film farce, tragedy, thriller, fantasy, sitcom, skin flick or moral fable? Yes to all of the above.
Kevin Spacey, in a knockout performance, nails every comic and poignant nuance in the role of Lester Burnham, a suburban Everyman whose life is coming apart. We first meet Lester when he's jerking off in the shower. "Funny thing is," he says in voiceover narration, "this is the high point of my day." Lester's not kidding. His wife, Carolyn, acted with go-for-broke intensity by Annette Bening, is an emotionally clenched real estate agent. Carolyn's turn-ons — her rose garden, money and motivational tapes, and the image of success she strives to maintain — do not include her husband. "See the way the handle on her pruning shears matches her gardening clogs?" asks Lester. "That's not an accident."
So far, so sitcom. Or so you might think, since screenwriter Alan Ball, making his feature debut, has previously done TV time on Grace Under Fire and Cybill. (Ball's new ABC series, Oh Grow Up, premieres on September 22nd.) But there are no network rules to constrict Ball this time. As a result, he's done something extraordinary: He's turned the cliches of sitcom upside down. His marvel of a screenplay puts flesh on stereotypes and then — testing for signs of humanity — pricks them until they bleed. The clever brushstrokes of television writing yield to a depth of characterization that allows for fear, feeling and that network bugaboo, ambiguity. The suburbanites of American Beauty — young and old — have interior lives that encompass different ideas of beauty and truth. You don't peg these people at a glance; they keep springing surprises.
Take Lester. Right off the bat, he tells us he'll be dead in less than a year. Who'd kill this unremarkable man? In waking up from the slumber of suburbia, Lester manages to piss off family, friends and neighbors by speaking the truth. He tells his boss at the media publication where he's been whoring for the advertising industry for fourteen years that "my job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge." He prefers working at a burger joint, trying to recapture the remembered joy of his adolescence. In bed next to his sleeping wife, Lester masturbates while fantasizing about Angela (Mena Suvari), a high school Lolita he dreams of bathing in a tub full of roses. When Carolyn wakes up appalled, he says, "Guess what? The new me whacks off when he feels horny, because you're obviously not going to help me out in that department." Lester asks his two gay neighbors, Jim (Scott Bakula) and Jim (Sam Robards), for workout tips ("I want to look good naked") and buys pot from Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the kid pusher and former mental patient next door. Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), Ricky's ramrod Marine dad, is as oblivious to his son's drug activities as he is to his near-comatose wife (Allison Janney). He mistakenly thinks Lester is paying his boy for blow jobs. Instead, Ricky is upstairs with his digicam, filming Lester's teen daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), as she strips, crawls into bed and rages about a father who has never known best.
It's the image of Jane on Ricky's TV monitor that begins the film. "I need a father who's a role model," says Jane, "not some horny geek boy who's gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school. What a lame-o. Somebody should really put him out of his misery."
"Want me to kill him for you?" asks Ricky.
"Yeah, would you?" says Jane, laughing.
That's the setup, encompassing whiplash changes of mood, all of which British director Sam Mendes orchestrates with exquisite control and fluid grace. Mendes, 33, makes a stunning debut in films after scoring theatrical sensations in London and New York with The Blue Room, starring Nicole Kidman, and the musical Cabaret, now more vital than ever on Broadway with Susan Egan bringing dazzling new life to Sally Bowles. Mendes' skill with actors is abundantly evident in American Beauty. Birch, a former child actress (Patriot Games), glimmers with grown-up radiance, while Suvari (American Pie) uncovers the self-loathing that Angela tries to hide. Newcomer Wes Bentley emerges as a major find, able to hold his own with Spacey, Bening and Cooper, who gives the colonel untapped reserves of passion.
You expect Mendes to shine at dialogue and performance. What's astonishing is this theater man's visual sophistication. With the invaluable contribution of cinematographer Conrad Hall (A Civil Action), Mendes creates a world of boxes and traps that can be escaped only through fantasy or violence. Lester hurls a plate of asparagus against the wall to shock his family into recognizing his existence. Carolyn, who finds no solace in an affair with a real estate king (Peter Gallagher), slaps her daughter and even herself to feel alive. Angela seeks validation that she's not "ordinary" by playing the cock tease. Out of deep loneliness, the rigid colonel beats Ricky, who turns to Jane for the comfort he can't find at home. And in this love story, touchingly played by Birch and Bentley, a healing tenderness breaks through the isolation.
Ricky is transfixed by a particular image that he has caught on video. It's of a plastic bag being whipped around by the wind in an empty parking lot. "It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air," Ricky tells Jane. "You can almost hear it, right?"Jane studies the image hard to see the beauty that Ricky sees. "This bag was, like, dancing with me," he says. "And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things." It's the life behind things that American Beauty catches as Mendes whips the audience around from humor to horror to something poetic and humane. The result is the kind of artful defiance that Hollywood is usually too timid to deliver: a jolting comedy that makes you laugh till it hurts.