Reviewed by GREG KING Director: Sam Mendes Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula,Sam Robards.
Yet another biting satire that savagely deconstructs the notion of wholesome family values in the heartland of American suburbia. As an exploration of dysfunctional families, the erosion of family values and the souring of the American dream, American Beauty is a fascinating and insightful character driven piece that explores similar territory to films like The Ice Storm and the recent Happiness. However, this is a far more enjoyable film than Happiness, with which it shares a number of thematic similarities. Although there is a nasty edge to this ironically titled comedy, there is also a strong vein of irreverent humour and compassion running throughout.
Kevin Spacey is superbly droll and bitingly acerbic as Lester Burnham, a middle aged man who is suffering burn out. He is bored with his life and his marriage to the ambitious, shrewish, neurotic and sarcastic Carolyn (Annette Bening). But then he becomes attracted towards Angela (Mena Suvari, recently seen in American Pie, etc), the shallow, self-centred cheerleader, who is also the best friend of his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch).
Apathy soon gives way to a new enthusiasm for life that confuses his family. He quits his job as a sales executive with a media company, wrangles a hefty $60,000 pay out, and sets about changing his life. Meanwhile Carolyn, a real estate agent, is sexually attracted towards her rival (Peter Gallagher). Adding to the combustible mix are the Burnum’s new neighbours, a homophobic retired Marine (Chris Cooper), his mousy and withdrawn wife (Allison Janney) and his enigmatic son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who obsessively captures his surroundings on video. It seems rather ironic that only the gay couple (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards) who live next door may be the only characters in this film who are truly happy with their lot.
Even the lesser characters are deftly observed in this incisive, cutting and beautifully nuanced script from Alan Ball, a veteran of television sitcoms (Cybill, etc). The performances throughout are uniformly impressive, and Oscar nominations seem assured. Spacey delivers easily his best screen performance for years, and he brings a pathos and honesty to his character that is perversely endearing. Bening revels in her richly drawn character, bringing an exuberant quality and a nicely hysterical edge to her bitchiness and selfishness.
American Beauty is the first feature film from noted British theatre director Sam Mendes, and he develops a superb rapport with his ensemble cast and a great understanding into the complexities and insecurities of the characters. He brings an outsider’s eye to this bleak, edgy view of suburbia, and turns the camera into a scalpel, with almost surgical precision. Veteran cinematographer Conrad L Hall brilliantly charts the gradually darkening tone of the film, from the bright colours that characterise the deceptively sedate opening scenes through to the grittier, more oppressive tones that mark the grim finale.
American Beauty is a raw, uncompromising and archly cynical view of contemporary America that should not be missed.