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 Spaceys central role as shallow, Sam Mendess
ambitious direction as crass, and Alan Balls screenplay as commonplace.
But that certainly wont
be happening here, since its hard to fault this contemporary masterpiece
about middle-class Americas 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 youd
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 Kidmans notoriety in The Blue Room.
Corralling a wealth of acting and technical talent, his result is simply
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withdrawn daughter Jane (Birch) is cheerleading, Lester is suddenly enraptured.
Janes 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 shouldnt harm
anyones 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 films 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 boys 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 Angelas curiosity
about lustful Lester completing the loop. But these lives contain many
deceptions, and unravelling the layers proves dangerous.
magnified rather than supported by this ensemble, surpasses his justly praised
previous career. Benings brittleness is a delight, Coopers
pumped-up emotions are riveting, while the younger cast are by no means
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
Lesters 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