American Beauty Review
By Joe Lozito
A Sting of "Beauty"
Every so often a film comes along that takes a shot at the suburbs. Built on a foundation of paper-thin appearances and material possessions, suburban America is always an easy target. The angst-ridden youth, the disfunctional marriages, the automotive fetishs all add up to fine satirical fodder. Recently, "Happiness" and "Election" have taken pot shots at suburban morals and ethics, but none has hit so close to the bone and so on-target as "American Beauty".
The success of "Beauty" is largely due to another near-perfect performance from Kevin Spacey. Mr. Spacey has honed his already impressive talents to create a character whose every facial expression, no matter how subtle, is a knowing glimpse into his character's thoughts. His Lester Burnham is an advertising drone with a Humbert Humbert streak. His daughter Jane (a nicely angsty Thora Birch) has a sultry nymph of friend (a dangerously attractive Mena Suvari), the very sight of whom sends Lester into a fit of mid-life mayhem. He manages at once to lose his job while blackmailing his boss for a year's salary. This free time gives Lester a chance to relive his old glory days as a beer-swilling, pot-smoking adolescent. Mr. Spacey exercises Lester's demons in various fantastic ways which make the film a joy to watch.
Director Sam Mendes has assembled a wonderful ensemble cast all around. Annette Bening gives a career performance as Lester's career-mad wife. Her Carolyn Burnham is a real estate broker obesessed with beating her competition (Peter Gallagher) before finally falling prey to his charms and eventually unravelling completely in a series of insane outbursts.
While the Burnham family are nearly perfectly tuned, the film falters slightly when their new neighrbors show up in the person of Marine Col. Fitts (Chris Cooper), his vacant wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and his automaton of a son, Ricky (Wes Bentley). Much of the film is spent developing the earnest relationship between Ricky and Jane. It seems that Ricky's character has spent some time in a mental hospital thanks to his inability to withstand a term at a Military Academy. Unfortunately, this leaves Mr. Bentley delivering many of Ricky's lines with a calming cadence akin to Mr. Data on "Star Trek".
Mr. Cooper's Col. Fitts is possibly the only predictable character in the film. He is the typical overbearing Army Dad who would search his son's room at even the slightest hint of foul play. However, the script by Television writer Alan Ball has a few surprises up its sleeve, even though in the end the character's behavior is contrived. This is Mr. Ball's first produced screenplay and hopefully not the last. He shows a gift for understanding the subtle relationships between the generations as well as an arid wit.
Mr. Mendes makes a very promising motion picture debut here. His suburban surroundings are sterile, but the film retains a feeling that something dirty is stirring under the surface - which is exactly the point. The many talents involved in the film combine to provide a glimpse into the essence of what suburbanites have come to hold dear in spite of themselves. Since it's hard to imagine another film coming along this year to take its place, "Beauty" is already on the ten best list for 1999.