Directed By Sam Mendes
By: Eric G.
American Beauty is a spot on satire of our cultural complacency as well as a scathing look at the rampant dysfunction that permeates today’s ‘family unit.’ Kevin Spacey plays Lester Byrnham, a forty-two year old, self-proclaimed loser, who is awakened out of the coma of his meaningless life by a nymphet on his daughter’s cheerleading squad. The film is balanced perfectly between the slapstick horror of Lester’s self-actualization and the sense of impending doom that Lester himself predicts in a kind of ominous prophecy from beyond death. Annette Benning plays Carolyn Burnham, Lester’s “bloodless” wife, as a caricature of today’s most shallow and materialistic suburbanites. Thora Birch is Jane, Lester and Carolyn’s unhappy daughter, who can’t relate or even communicate with her parents and gets caught in the crossfire of their disintegrating, loveless marriage.
Director Sam Mendes takes writer Alan Ball’s confrontational script to the limit of absurdity and believability without tripping up. He fuses heavily sedated dream sequences in with sharp editing, so that the contrast is so great we can feel the coldness of reality cut through the flowery tangents. The cinematography is astoundingly good. No shots are wasted. Every frame adds to the furthering of the plot. Mendes must be the most trusting of directors to have been able to get performances like these out of these actors. Not that this cast is anything to scoff at- just the opposite, in fact, but Mendes manages to get more than you’d expect out of each character no matter how small the role.
Spacey is the shining genius of the film, however. His gleeful delivery of bile-infested dialogue is unsurpassed by any of his peers. His face can mime emotions so complex most people wouldn’t even be able to voice what he can do with a smirk or a rolling of his eyes. It’s like eating candy watching Spacey in this role. This film works because of Spacey. No other actor could have pulled off balancing such a web of conflicting tones and emotions with such grace and ease. Benning’s performance should not be overlooked either. She brings such a tormented level of psychosis to her character’s struggle with perception and success that we almost sympathize with her despite her calculated and phony personality.
American Beauty juggles a moving love story beneath melodramatic midlife crisis of Lester Byrnham between Jane and the drug dealing, voyeuristic new neighbor played with such depth and confidence by newcomer Wes Bentley. Mendes takes careful precaution never to let the scenes between Jane and Ricky seem cheesy or superfluous. He treats their burgeoning love as a matter of life and death. Every second counts. And, perhaps, the trickiest part of all is that we totally sympathize with and understand Ricky in all of his complexity and pain despite his drug dealing and voyeurism.
American Beauty suffers from none of the softening most Hollywood vehicles undergo in order to appeal to the largest audience. This film takes chances and confronts issues even indie films are reticent to embrace. I am hard-pressed to name a film this effective and daring that works on as many levels as American Beauty does. This is hands down the best film I’ve seen all year, and I can’t imagine anything surpassing it. You know, though, that some lame, sentimental pile of dross will come out around Christmas time and ‘win the hearts of Americans’ and American Beauty will be overlooked when it comes time to present awards.