Cinema has long been fascinated by the dark underside of Americana and suburbia at large. The idea that even the most mundane lives could have a lascivious or sinister side is something David Lynch ("Blue Velvet") has made a career of. It's also the overall concept behind director Sam Mendes' wildly anticipated feature "American Beauty."
Starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as Lester and Carolyn Burnham , "Beauty" follows the ever-changing world of a seemingly happy couple living the American dream. Despite a beautiful home, a teenage daughter (Thora Birch) and careers of their own, the two are actually in living hells of their own creation.
Entrenched in their jobs; oblivious to each other's needs and completely out of the loop in regards to their daughter's life, the pair are wallowing in a sea of camouflaged resentment and hostility. Within the first five minutes, the audience is told--through Spacey's voiceover narration--that our protagonist is going to die. The hows, whys and whens are still a little unclear, but the seed has been planted and grows quickly from there.
The scenario starts playing itself out when Lester meets daughter Jane's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), a stunning young blonde who puts insane visions of statutory rape in his head.
Things aren't much better on Carolyn's side. Obsessed with becoming a major player in the real estate biz, she finds herself drawn to Peter Gallagher's mover-shaker property broker Buddy Kane ("The King of Real Estate"). Far from conspicuous, Carolyn and Buddy take up where she and Lester presumably should have been all along.
Making things stranger still, a new family moves in next door--complete with a fanatical ex-marine father (Chris Cooper), his submissive wife (Allison Janney) and their seemingly unbalanced son Ricky (Wes Bentley). At a cocktail party, the young man --working as a waiter-- introduces himself to Lester and the two hit it off. Things loosen up even more when the pair head out back and shoot the breeze over a quick joint (it seems the lad makes his real money selling a variety of mind-numbing chemicals and plant life).
With a newfound lust for his glory days, Lester begins to approach life in a whole new vein. Work, money and his home life in general all seem like things he could easily do without. Jane meanwhile has become even more disenchanted with her parents after falling in love with the boy next door.
As Lester slides closer and closer to his aforementioned demise, the increasingly-smaller worlds these people inhabit draw tighter until there is no further room to coexist without disaster.
As a piece of engaging cinema, director Sam Mendes does an admirable job of keeping things lively and interesting. He gets the absolute most out of his actors, which at least in terms of performers like Spacey and Bening, shouldn't come as any surprise. Chris Cooper turns out to be the real dark horse. Oozing menace and intolerance, Cooper personifies the danger lurking beneath many a suburban cul-de-sac in Anywhere U.S.A.
However, as engaging as "American Beauty" often is, there never seems to be a defining moment that is based in anything other than stereotype or movie cliché. Though we relate and cheer for Spacey's Lester--he is not a new breed of character by any stretch. The other roles are also somewhat one dimensional--from the homophobic ex-marine to the cheerleading bimbo to the overachieving mother. Even Spacey's character tends to the "I'm fed up and I'm not gonna take it any more" spiel.
Stereotypes generally come from a warped interpretation of reality. For a story that could have gone in so many different directions, it's unfortunate that Mendes does not allow for more well-rounded characters. That's not to say audiences won't enjoy the picture. Indeed, there is nary a dull moment and Kevin Spacey alone could read from a phone book and hold audience attention. What ultimately exists is a film that's entertaining, without much to remember six months down the line.
* MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content.
Kevin Spacey Lester Burnham
Annette Bening Carolyn Burnham
Thora Birch Jane Burnham
Wes Bentley Ricky Fitts
Mena Suvari Angela Hayes
Peter Gallagher Buddy Kane
Allison Janney Barbara Fitts
Chris Cooper Colonel Fitts
A Jinks/Cohen Co. production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Directed by Sam Mendes. Produced by Bruce Cohen & Dan Jinks. Written by Alan Ball. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. Editors Tariq Anwar, Chris Greenbury. Production design Naomi Shohan. Costume design Julie Weiss. Music Thomas Newman. Art director David S. Lazan. Set decorator Jan K. Bergstrom