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[whitespace] Mena Suvari
Lolita du jour: Mena Suvari captures Kevin Spacey's attention in American Beauty.

Photograph by Michael Amsler


True Beauty

'American Beauty' draws a masterful portrait of quiet desperation

By Nicole McEwan

FILM CRITICS can be cruel. We get paid to complain and frequently we do. But then a film comes along that stands apart. In this demographic-driven age, in which every studio script is worked over like a celebrity triage victim, we rejoice for the survivor, the masterpiece that evades the process. It's then that a critic takes on the persona of an evangelist, preaching the power of the anointed film like religion.

Our zeal operates in direct proportion to the project's advance notoriety. Spielberg doing World War II? Of course, it'll be good--possibly great. But the real joy is in the discoveries: A relatively unknown British theater director painting a potent, yet nuanced portrait of contemporary American life? That's special. And what about its uniformly sublime performances, shot by a master cinematographer from a script so laser sharp you want to preach it like the Gospel?

In his directorial debut, Sam Mendes offers a film that operates and succeeds on every creative level, in perfect unity. It somehow combines a deadpan timeliness with the classic bile of Billy Wilder and the tear-inducing humanity of Frank Capra, yet is inimitably Mendes' own blend of caustic wit and visual jocularity. American Beauty is as powerful and transcendent as it is difficult to describe.

Kevin Spacey plays Lester Birnbaum, a 40-something ad man who lives a tastefully appointed life of quiet desperation. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a money-grubbing real estate rep whose stringent ideals of aesthetic perfection consume her; neither Lester nor their only child measures up.

At 16, Jane (an amazing Thora Birch) is insecure, confused, and petulant--in other words, perfectly normal.

So she will remain throughout the film, until finally her normalcy renders her freakish among the borderline lunatics that surround her.

At work, Lester is about to be downsized. Two things keep him going: a Lolita-like obsession with his daughter's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), and the pharmaceutical-grade marijuana he buys from Ricky (Wes Bentley), the creepy boy next store, a teen so carefully detached from the real world that he obsessively views and records life with a digital palmcorder.

When we meet his clinically depressed mother and gun-crazy military man father we understand his peculiarities--if only slightly.

Meanwhile, Jane suffers the indignities of having a narcissistic dick-tease for a best friend. An aspiring model, Angela's biggest fear is to be ordinary. Moreover, she actually enjoys Lester's ill-concealed gawking. Disgusted, Jane finds refuge in Ricky, a soulmate nearly as sensitive as herself.

This is the setup.

These are the players. Their fate cannot be diverted--and just when we feel we have sorted the good from the bad, a bizarre misunderstanding shakes everything apart, and when the pieces fall back together, they've been rearranged, and no one is exactly whom we thought they were.

THE FILM's tag line is "Look closer," and ace cinematographer Conrad Hall's technique of continual slow zooms guides the way, aided by his meticulous and evocative use of reflective surfaces, which facilitates close examination.

There's a lot to study. In one film Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball take on guns, homophobia, suburban sprawl, conspicuous consumption, lookism, agism, sex, lies, videotape, and the infinite beauty that exists on this earth, if only we took the time to seek it.

With Oscar-caliber performances from Bening and Spacey, and a mesmerizing debut from Bentley, American Beauty is a film critic's equivalent of a modern-day miracle--and an excellent candidate for inclusion in a millennial time capsule, along with a TV Guide, a New York Post, a pair of khakis, and the Starr Report.

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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