*American Beauty (R)
It isn't a new story -- a loser suburban husband, a shrewish materialistic wife, a disgruntled teenager all longing to bust free of suburban America. But American Beauty is no rehash of a tired story. Instead, as one of the characters remarks, it is more like "Welcome to America's weirdest home videos."
American Beauty proves, once again, that you don't have to have a new plot to make a fresh story. Instead, a strong visual style, fabulous acting and quirky writing can all conspire to create an erotic, humorous, captivating film.
The film begins with a voiceover of the kind I normally hate -- a long-winded, first-person narration that is usually the sign of lazy screenwriting. But I was forced to kill my expectations pretty quickly -- the voiceover comes from a dead guy. A funny, scathing dead guy. Whoa.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has just about had enough. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is obsessed, keeping up her image and with not letting her mascara run, his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is a disgruntled teenager convinced her parents are losers, and his boss has hired an efficiency expert to figure out how to fire him. Life suddenly comes alive for Lester, however, when he falls madly in love with Jane's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), a nubile blond cheerleader. The normally phlegmatic Lester sees voluptuous rose petals floating from Angela's open blouse whenever he imagines the girl.
Suddenly awakened from the doldrums of a deadly marriage, Lester is transformed: He starts working out, smokes dope with the next-door neighbor kid (Wes Bentley), quits his respectable job to flip burgers and purchases the car he's always wanted -- a 1970s Firebird. The awakening of his desire becomes a catalyst for all of those around him. Carolyn becomes wonderfully transformed by an affair with a fellow real-estate broker, Jane falls in love with the slightly scary next-door neighbor, and sex and beauty fill the air.
This film is all kinds of wonderful. Kevin Spacey is given a funny, dry script by screenwriter Alan Ball and uses it confidently, moving between bumbling idiot, threatening asshole and tender father with ease; Annette Bening perfectly captures the manic acquisitiveness and just-below-the-surface despair of professional-class America with a physical, comedic presence that most actresses would never dare attempt; Wes Bentley portrays the disturbed boy next door with a quiet gravity that intensifies every scene he graces.
An equally compelling pleasure is the set design and cinematography of the film. Some of the night scenes are artfully filmed with no color in them at all, as if in black-and-white stock, but without use of that technique. Scene after scene is framed with care to underscore the experiences of the characters themselves. First-time director (he has directed theater.) Sam Mendes has done a remarkable job of learning the vocabulary of filmmaking and using it to create a multilayered visual and psychological delight.
In the end, American Beauty is a dark and strangely redemptive film, an ironic and poignant lesson in the promise and danger of desire and a call to savor the beauty in every ordinary life.