Also recommended this month
From the February 2000
Film Review

Film Review Hotline

5 Stars
This is the highlight of my day: Kevin Spacey, Mena Suvari
Scars and stripes
STARS: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper
DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes
CERTIFICATE: 18 DISTRIBUTOR and Picture copyright: UIP
RUNNING TIME: 1hr 58mins
OPENING DATE (UK): January 28

Praised to the sky in its namesake nation – and hotly tipped for Oscar success – this tragi-comic, sinister satire carries such great expectations that a backlash is inevitable. Somewhere, someone will be denouncing Kevin Spacey’s central role as shallow, Sam Mendes’s ambitious direction as crass, and Alan Ball’s screenplay as commonplace.

But that certainly won’t be happening here, since it’s hard to fault this contemporary masterpiece about middle-class America’s underbelly. The raw ingredients promise little: a mid-life male crisis, a young blonde fantasy figure and two dysfunctional families, served by a débutant director from theatre and a first-time screenwriter from sitcoms.

Yet overlook it, and you’d be missing an enthralling kaleidoscope of various lives with the wheels coming off. Anyway, Englishman Mendes was behind the stage success of Little Voice and Nicole Kidman’s notoriety in The Blue Room. Corralling a wealth of acting and technical talent, his result is simply superb.

American Beauty follows a year in the life of Lester Burnham (Spacey), first seen as a magazine writer whose world is idling in neutral. Sullenly attending a school event where his withdrawn daughter Jane (Birch) is cheerleading, Lester is suddenly enraptured. Jane’s drop-dead gorgeous friend Angela (Suvari) becomes his fantasy object, inspiring him to cut his disposable job and predictable, flabby lifestyle adrift. Lester swiftly regains a sense of youthful freedom, but we know the destabilizing ripples will rebound on him, and fatally.

It shouldn’t harm anyone’s enjoyment to know that this film is narrated from the afterlife by its central character. As Lester reviews his last year on Earth in a bizarrely uplifting way – typifying the film’s effect – his family and neighbours come in for close inspection. Brazenly unaffectionate wife Carolyn (Bening) is a small-time estate agent who idolizes her leading local rival. New neighbour Colonel Fitts (Cooper) is a violent homophobe, fearful about his son Ricky (a début of enigmatic substance from Bentley), yet blind to the boy’s lucrative dope trading.

Soon Ricky becomes involved with Jane Burnham, outraging the elitist Angela. This half-wise, half-naïve teen romance is a calm counterpoint to their parents’ various near-hysterics – with sexual braggart Angela’s curiosity about lustful Lester completing the loop. But these lives contain many deceptions, and unravelling the layers proves dangerous.

Spacey’s performance, magnified rather than supported by this ensemble, surpasses his justly praised previous career. Bening’s brittleness is a delight, Cooper’s pumped-up emotions are riveting, while the younger cast are by no means submerged.

What a rarity: a studio picture which triumphs by such old-fashioned virtues as a character-led script, quality acting, and vivid photography (from Butch Cassidy cinematographer Conrad L Hall, no less), without a whiff of nostalgia. The veteran Hall handles Lester’s frequent glides into his rosy fantasy almost seamlessly.

Some of the underlying themes of this ruthless dissection of suburban America recall The Truman Show: another satirical gem directed by an observant non-American to sublime effect. The result is a thing of rare beauty indeed, and likely to be a cinematic joy forever.

Mark Wyman

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