Beauty actually makes
upper-middle-class angst interesting.
by Coury Turczyn
Lester Burnham is miserable.
Although he lives in a perfect suburban home, enjoys an upper-middle class income, and owns a Mercedes Benz SUV, his life is dissipating before his eyes. He is mired in a job he hates. His wife the real estate agent is living in a Martha Stewart trance. His teenage daughter loathes himand why not? He's a loser. Worse, he's doing nothing to stop this downward spiral; he simply subsists from day to day as his soul recedes ever further away.
Familiar territory, yes? Especially when American Beauty hits the plot twist: Lester Burnham becomes infatuated with his daughter's best friend, a perfect blonde cheerleader. Oh dear. Yet another mid-life crisis for us to ponder as an aging man pursues his youth-affirming Lolita. But that's not really the story here. Instead, American Beauty deftly peels away the layers of an All American dysfunctional family, uncovering the surprising inner lives of people we think we know: ourselves. It is, hands down, one of the best Hollywood dramas in yearspoignant, funny, bold and truthful in the most aching way. Just like they used to make em.
Screenwriter Alan Ballthis is his first movie; he used to write episodes of Cybill, for god's sakeeffortlessly balances an array of characters, providing each one with a genuine personal conflict that actually fits within the context of the whole story. And every character is a spot-on portrayal of American lives today. Lester (Kevin Spacey in another career-high turn) is, of course, something of an everyschlub; but his taboo yearning sparks more than just a dirty-old-man descentit wakens him from his coma of the heart and makes him realize just how off-track he and his family have become. None of them are living as their true selves, instead taking on roles they feel they have no choice but to accept.
First, there's his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), a control freak who tries to fill the emptiness in her life with color-coordinated gardening tools and Mantovani-like Muzak. As a real estate agent, she forces herself to stay unnaturally perky and cheerfuleven as she routinely debases herself in hopes of making a sale. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she refuses to believe anything in her life is amissuntil it's way too late. Then there's Lester's daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), a high school nerd who simmers with resentment over being habitually ignored by her parents. She's saving up money for breast implants, a sign of insecurity that's further exposed by her choice of friend, whom she has nothing in common with: Angela (Mena Suvari), a vain Barbie girl who flaunts her sexual worldiness and flirts with Lester.
Each of them has been orbiting ever more distantly away, but when Lester snapsquitting his job, buying a 1970 Firebird, and working outit forces them to face up to their problems. Further complicating matters are two other infatuations: Carolyn's for "The King of Real Estate" Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and Jane's for the creepy boy next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Through the course of the story, each character is revealed to be quite different from your first assumptions, learning and changing along the way (remember "character arcs"?). And unlike other exposes of suburban life, American Beauty is not so much preoccupied with revealing the grotesque nature of its characters (as in Todd Solondz's Happiness) as it is showing how abnormal our "normal" lives can become. These are not hateful people, just gloriously screwed up and very familiar individuals.
The performances behind these characters are wonderful to watch. Spacey has a knack for making his edgy creations perfectly likable, and even though Lester's base urges may be illegal, his higher aspirations of personal renewal have an off-kilter nobility. What's more, Spacey is just damn funny, with perfect comic timing (with two words, "I rule," he inspires guffaws). Likewise, Bening takes what could have been a movie clichéthe shrewish career wifeand makes her a portrait of perfumed angst, reminding us why she got that Oscar nomination for The Grifters almost a decade ago. Really, the same praise goes for all the actors in this impeccably cast film, particularly newcomer Bentley, whose intelligence shines through his mesmerizing turn as the one character everyone may assume to be the most mentally unbalancedbut who's actually the most centered.
If American Beauty is a great first script for Ball, it's also a fine debut for director Sam Mendes, the Broadway director behind The Blue Room and the Cabaret revival. The Brit shows such a sure hand guiding his actors in this dissection of American lives that he inspires hope for a renewed focus on creating truly mature dramas. Let me put it in movie ad terms: American Beauty is the best movie of the year. And I hope its sophistication catches on in this era of more commonly produced pabulum like The Horse Whisperer or Meet Joe Black. (But then again, that's what I was hoping after Boogie Nights came out )