In the first scene of American Beauty, a teenaged girl describes her father in blunt terms as an incurable lecher who pines after her fetching high-school friends. Her boyfriend offers to kill him. In the second scene, dad is heard in voiceover, describing his life in suburbia — a life that, he explains, ended at the age of 42, making the entire film a flashback to the events leading up to his death.
I have no idea why the filmmakers decided to telegraph their ending this way,* other than the obvious reference to Sunset Boulevard, which was also narrated by a dead man. It fits with the film’s ultimate message about appreciating life while you have it, but deliberately sets up the distracting question of which addled neighbor will wind up offing him. In this movie, everyone nurtures their own motivations for murder, and most of them have easy access to guns. You might think that whodunit would become a key question, but you’d be wrong.
Rather than the story of a murder, American Beauty is a pungent satire of middle-American values that casts Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, an unhappy husband who spends his days as an apparent near-automaton working the phones for an advertising industry publication and lives in an undistinguished neighborhood with wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch). The new neighbors are a retired U.S. Marine colonel (Chris Cooper) whose strict disciplinarian philosophy seems to have shocked his wife (Allison Janney) into a near-perpetual state of silence. Son Ricky (Wes Bentley) is a creepy but likable kid who deals pot on the side and seems to keep a video camera tucked into his palm wherever he goes — the tapes he makes line the walls of his bedroom, and Jane unwittingly becomes his favorite subject.
Storywise, what distinguishes American Beauty is that Lester’s quest to reinvent his life is set in motion by his lust for Jane’s cheerleader friend Angela (Mena Suvari). In a bid to impress his own personal Lolita, Lester spends the next months on a regimen that includes lifting weights, smoking dope, quitting his job of 13 years in favor of a new career as an overqualified burger flipper, and trading in his sensible car for that 1970 Pontiac Firebird he’s always wanted — basically, he regresses to a post-adolescent slacker state. As Carolyn embarks on her own affair, the libidinous stirrings of the parents mirror — and, in Lester’s case, intersect — the erotic awakenings of the children, a la The Ice Storm.
The material is well-acted, reasonably insightful, and often laugh-at-loud funny. But, as striking as it is, American Beauty is mostly a compendium of well-worn truisms about fin de siècle suburban life — career stress, midlife crisis, sexual dysfunction, alienation, insecurity, violence, and the cult of the camcorder. Without the skill and singular perspective of an Atom Egoyan or a David Lynch — or even a Paul Schrader or a Todd Solondz — the kitchen-sink approach only goes so far.
Too often, the film is overly ambitious and mannered, with a distracting level of stylization. It feels like a theatrical troupe’s idea of what a film should look like. Sam Mendes is known for directing plays with a fierce sexual edge, including The Blue Room and the current Cabaret revival (if nothing in American Beauty is half as devastating as the new Cabaret, it ain’t for lack of trying), and first-time screenwriter Alan Ball was a theater major and playwright before making his name in television, writing for Cybill and Grace Under Fire.
The screenplay suffers somewhat from its own eagerness, with too much dialogue functioning as obvious Cliff’s Notes for the film, outlining topics for discussion after the lights go back on. The visuals contribute more abstract ideas. When Spacey fixates on teenaged Suvari, his fantasies are signaled by the presence of deep red rose petals — the American Beauty is a variety of crimson-petaled rose, and the film’s title is apparently a double reference to the flower and the girl. (It’s a lot more than that, actually, encompassing notions of physical attractiveness, the expectations we hold for our children, and everyday occurences that testify to the presence of a higher power.) And the widescreen frame allows Mendes to compose shots that show us photographer, subject, and image all in one view — that’s the sort of shot favored by a director who’s still figuring out what it means to make a film.
With insight that could easily be carried over from the stage, the film’s preoccupation with windows and what can and cannot be seen through them is three-dimensional, with mirrors and television monitors adding a tricky dimension to space. And while I happily buy the idea of the voyeuristic teenage courtship conducted in part across the lawns of adjacent two-story homes, I also remember that my neighbors often kept the curtains closed and hope that kids as paranoid as the ones in this movie have reason to be would be a little more discreet when, say, they’re rolling joints in the basement. The lack of modesty culminates in a misunderstanding that’s so unlikely I had written it off as an unfortunate but irrelevant contrivance until realizing that the entire film hinged on it.
Elsewhere, such as the surprisingly natural scenes between Lester and the much younger Ricky, who get to know each other by toking up in the alley during a cocktail party, the picture hums right along. It’s a show-off role for Spacey, who proves himself to be a low-key comic genius, a loose cannon taking shots from an increasingly flamboyant arsenal, and then confirming the hit with a smile delivered only to the audience. Bening gets the thankless part of the career-obsessed wife who’s driven to live at a fever pitch, striving to achieve a probably mythical state of materialistic bliss. She’s at once the film’s most garish caricature and its most credible definition of spiritual malaise.
Speaking of credibility, I give Mendes and Ball (and, indeed, DreamWorks SKG) points for having the courage to treat their younger characters as sexual beings, despite a social climate that insists on “protecting” children from such things. Birch is first-rate, even though her part seems to have been written for someone else entirely — her reserved, quasi-goth looks are entirely out of place among her perky cheerleader pals, and one wonders why the breast-augmentation subplot wasn’t written out of the film entirely. Suvari struggles a little with her less carefully constructed role. (It’s interesting to note that Mendes has both of his young actresses undress for the camera, either challenging the audience to come to terms with its own sexualized perception of teenagers or simply exposing the director as a dirty old man; you make the call.)
Finally, Wes Bentley is stuck with the task of making Ricky seem both awkward and charming. To some degree, he manages. As the most obvious alter-ego for the screenwriter, Ricky is the key to this story. He rescues Jane, probably the film’s most innocent character. He’s figured out how to stay out from under the thumb of a domineering father. He’s also a victim of some of the script’s most portentous dialogue, trying too hard to explain why a tumbling plastic bag proves the existence of God, or to verbalize the divine privilege that accompanies a glimpse into the empty eyes of a dead vagrant. I don’t doubt the contradictory beauty of such moments, but better they be left wordless. It’s when American Beauty strives hardest to express the sublime that it teeters on the edge of banality.