American Beauty
A Film by Sam Mendes


American Beauty, the first film from director Sam Mendes, whose previous experience is completely in legitimate theater, is also a first produced screenplay for writer Alan Ball, whose previous work is all in television. It is a blacky humorous fable that explores the underside of the American Dream with wit and style.

The story concerns a dysfunctional suburban family whose pretensions to normality are swept away when the frustrated, "quietly desperate" father, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) develops a crush on his teen-age daughter's friend, Angela (Mena Suvari).

His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Burch) react by involving themselves in relationships of their own - the wife with sleazy real-estate salesman Buddy King (Peter Gallagher), and the daughter with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) the ironically-named, mis-fit, drug-dealer son of the retired Marine Colonel who moves into the house next door.

The father's infatuation knocks the underpinning out from the illusion of stability he has labored to create. He quits his thankless and pointless job and replaces it with an occupation that satisfies his desire for, as he puts it, "as little responsibility as possible."

His aggressive attack on all the institutions of "normality" terrorizes his superficial, materialist wife and drives her into the arms of the equally superficial King, who shares with her his mantra: "to be successful one must project the image of success at all times." Lester's adolescent rebellion so far exceeds Jane's that she is left with no alternative except to grow up.

But the story - flush with satirical asides like its reference to the neighborhood's gay professional couple, Jim and Jim - is only a vehicle for observations about the nature of life at the end of the 20th century. The film doesn't seek to create a factual, authentic narrative. The characters walk the line of caricature in a way that would be unacceptable in a serious drama, but are all part of the magical realist fable unfolding here.

Screenwriter Ball's roots are in television sitcom and in a way this film can be seen as a savage reaction to the artificiality and superficiality of that genre. At the same time, the film's greatest weaknesses are in those places where the conventions and assumptions of the sitcom world creep in. There is something slightly schizophrenic - and a bit dishonest - in trying to create a mass-market vehicle that sends up the values of mass- market consciousness.

Yet many of the issues addressed range from poignant or downright excruciating. Lester's consciousness of the lack of meaning in his life, his irrelevance to everyone around him, might as easily be the source of a tragedy about suicide as a comedy about infidelity. Jane's painful adolescent struggle for identity, recognition and connection in the insipid, sex-obsessed world of the contemporary American high-school is wrenching as well as funny. Carolyn's brittle desperation, her addictive dependence on the appearance of success, her concealed self-loathing that only we see, is deeply sad, in spite of its use to trigger funny set-pieces.

Along the way, Ball and Mendes make pointed commentaries about business management, materialism, the fitness craze, the war between adults and adolescents, guns, the ambivalent American attitude toward teen sexuality, and many other difficult issues. Although the subject matter is often serious and important and the commentaries often insightful, they have a flipness which - while in keeping with the film's designation as a "comedy," still seems a bit facile, a descent into the sitcom "one-liner."

Lester's obsessive fantasizing about Angela produces several elaborate and resonant sight-gags, yet its painful inappropriateness and the unhappiness that spawns it are equally compelling. The relationship between Ricky and his martinet of a father is a source of several funny situations, but explodes into a brutal violence that is shocking and horrifying. Then it slips back into comedy again. This shifting in the film's attitude is disturbing, and the disturbance it creates in us is in many ways the most interesting aspect of the film.

Mendes gets terrific performances from his actors, that carry the film over the rough places in the script. Most notable is Kevin Spacey, in a tour-de-force that spans physical comedy, dramatic acting, and character comedy with apparently effortless facility. He takes a broadly sketched character - a sort of lecherous version of Dagwood gone wrong - and invests him with enough complicated, recognizable humanity that we actually care what happens to him.

Annette Bening, in the best work she has done since The Grifters, sometimes seems to take her character a little too far, but then collapses with an emotional realism that melds character and caricature. Her reaction to a frustrating and demoralizing "open house" at one of the homes she is trying to sell offers the first disorienting glimpse into the tragic underlayer of the film's suburban nightmare and sets the tone for much of what is to come.

Thora Burch, as Jane, projects a mixture of youthful cynicism and hopeful, innocent vulnerability that is affecting. She plays her role with a minimalist sensibility that makes her something deeper than some grown-up's idea of "teen-angst."

Wes Bentley, as Ricky Fitts, finds a low-key, compassionate detachment in the character that allows him to deliver lyrical soliloquies without seeming pompous or contrived and to introduce one of the film's key themes without preaching.

Mena Suvari, as Angela Hayes, presents another response to the adolescent dilemma, as a precocious, dishonest manipulator who gets in over her head trying to explore the power of her sexuality. She gives her character a wistful insecurity that contrasts effectively with her self-image as a femme fatale.

Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), is the character most likely to be perceived as a stereotype. Cooper undertakes the daunting task of investing the repressed, discipline-obsessed, jealous, paranoid military-man with a sympathetic dimension, and does a remarkable job of it. He gives us a convincing image of the pain and longing from which the stereotypical reactions spring.

Production values are of a high order. The intercutting of black and white video sequences - including one in which a traumatic event is seen partly from the skewed camera's point of view as a picture within the picture - is remarkably effective. The narrative cinematography has the jerky, intimate feel of cinema verite, but it is interspersed with elaborate and evocative fantasy sequences of great polish and delicacy.

The choice of music, including evocatively off-beat popular standards and oddly structured original compositions, is excellent. The music eases transitions, and comments archly on the action without becoming precious. Some of the disjointed, arrhythmic original pieces give aural substance to the disintegration the characters are experiencing.

Yet in spite of its many strengths, there is something partly unsatisfying about the course of the film. All the characters as written have serous internal contradictions, excesses and lapses that would scuttle them if played literally. It is one of the film's great successes that Mendes and his cast make them live on a scene-by-scene basis in a way that allows the audience to smooth the transitions and identify with their humanity in spite of the weaknesses of the script.

The greatest weakness is the resolution of the story. A rather contrived "mistaken assumptions" gag goes disastrously awry to lead to a conclusion that is at once too shocking and too easy. It would have been much more of a challenge to leave the audience to deal with the continuation of the characters' lives than to end it, as Ball literally does, with a bang. Again, one is tempted to think of that drive to "wrap-up the episode" that is part of every sitcom.

In the end everything resolves into a kind of aphoristic "deep thought" that betrays both the comedy and the savage satire. It is a good thought, and a true one, but placed as it is, it seems heavy handed and insincere.

But for the outstanding performances, for the witty, bleak, emotionally-engaging deconstruction of the soul-destroying insanity inherent in the current version of the American Dream, this is a film worth seeing.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?