Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle American Beauty

By Marc Savlov

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

D: Sam Mendes; with Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards, Chris Cooper. (R, 118 min.)

What American Beauty has to say isn't pretty, at least not in the conventional fashion, but it is a brilliant, exhilarating piece of filmmaking. It may even be the best mainstream film of the year thus far, and by mainstream I mean produced by a major studio (in this case, DreamWorks SKG). In fact, how this tempestuous, bleak comedy of suburban mores and the sudden renegotiation of one man's deal with Life made it past the initial pitch meeting is a mystery in itself. It did, though, and moviegoers are the better for it. 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. 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 (Bening), a rabidly materialistic, go-getting real estate agent, are watching their daughter Jane (Birch) cheerlead at her high school. Lester's eye falls on Jane's best friend Angela (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 (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.

4 Stars

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