The advertising tag line on the poster for American Beauty is "look closer." It's rather coy and collegiate, but it applies in a couple of valid ways. In one sense, this well-crafted, cruelly funny and thoroughly engrossing film about suburban malaise and human impulse does ask you to look more closely at its characters: Alan Ball's ice-pick screenplay jabs holes through the paper-thin facade of happiness his people present to the world and lets you see the turmoil raging beneath.
But to enjoy this film, you also have to indulge in a different kind of close-looking: You have to look past a juvenile and rather stale concept for a film about modern American life, that is: Beneath the well-manicured surface of suburbia lurks?thrum of bass fiddle?deep unhappiness! These upper-middle-class white folks are stuck in a rat race and prize things over people. They have no values anymore. They're so desensitized by tv and shopping malls and chain stores that they can't truly connect with others. Blah blah blah.
Though the characters are, without exception, stirringly realized by the main cast, they are, point of fact, all stereotypes of one sort or another, and it's a while before they show us enough idiosyncrasies and complications that we forget they're stereotypes. In the first 15 minutes of American Beauty, which was directed by theater veteran Sam Mendes, I seemed to be watching the most shallow and pointlessly hyped American drama in recent years. (Well, maybe the second most shallow and pointlessly hyped; the first would be Todd Solondz's aggressively jejune Happiness, which proceeds from the premise that all suburban residents?indeed, all human beings?are pathetic, deluded, sexually dysfunctional losers who deserve their lots in life, then proves it by showing us two hours of sad behavior by pathetic, deluded, sexually dysfunctional losers who deserve their lots in life. The only thing truly shocking things about it were 1) that its allegedly brilliant script seemed to have been written by a gifted, glum, 18-year-old boho wannabe desperate to settle scores, and 2) that so many supposedly sophisticated film critics fell for it.) But I stuck it out, and I'm glad I did. American Beauty's characters soon revealed so many shadings?and so many flat-out odd and therefore believable quirks?that they sloughed off the carapace of their preconceived profiles to reveal fresh and astonishing human beings.
The final act of the movie, which ties together all the disparate plot threads in a knot of sex and violence and despair, occurs over the course of a single dark and stormy night. It plays like the masterful "Walt Catches Cold" chapter of John Irving's The World According To Garp, or an Edward Albee play rewritten by James M. Cain; it's film noir gone domestic?at once funny and tender, squalid and empathetic. American Beauty is one of those movies that asks cluelessly smug audience members?the kind who second-guess movie plots out loud and announce, "Oh, I saw that coming," at regular intervals?to keep their rhetorical knives in the drawer for the first half-hour, so that the script, direction and performances can work their rough magic.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), patriarch of the film's central family, is a hack journalist at an advertising magazine who's stuck in a sexless marriage to a ditzy, social-climbing real estate agent (Annette Bening). By his own admission, masturbating in the shower each morning is the highlight of his day. His disdainful daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), seems to loathe him, and not without reason: he's a sarcastic, defeated whelp who defers to his wife even when she's being a complete bitch, drools over Jane's cute female friends and seems to have given up even the dream of happiness.
The story kicks into high gear when Lester's empty suit of a boss asks him to write out a job description detailing exactly what it is he contributes to the magazine. Lester, who's no dummy, quickly deduces that this is an especially evil way for the company to lay people off while making the laid-off individuals feel they were somehow complicit in their own demise. Lester, who has given 14 years of his life to this worthless publication, realizes his life is a sham, a joke, an ongoing empty gesture. He'd like to start living again but he's not sure how to go about it.
A man in this situation is apt to make foolish choices, and sure enough, Lester's is a whopper: He decides what he really needs is a tryst with Jane's best pal and cheerleading partner, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), an ebullient blonde who likes to tell randy stories about her sex life and is hoping to become the next runway sensation. Lester becomes addicted to his own lust. One by one, his inhibitions fall away. He starts working out again, smoking pot again, listening to rock again; he contemplates buying that 1970 Pontiac Firebird he always wanted; most significantly, he begins speaking his mind without fear of retribution. There's nothing more frightening to the world than a man with nothing to lose. Needless to say, Lester's family and neighbors are terrified.
As Lester embarks on his odyssey, amusing and sometimes disturbing subplots whirl around him. His pot connection is the teenage boy next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, an intense young actor with the kind voice and intense, druggy gaze of Joaquin Phoenix). Ricky's drug-dealing occurs right under the nose of his alienated, nearly catatonic mom (Alison Janney) and his right-wing, macho, extremely homophobic father, Col. Jack Fitts (a brilliant turn by Chris Cooper, who seems to be specializing in hardcase dads these days). Ricky pretends to be the model son, talking in military self-actualization jargon to his old man and even submitting to home drug tests every six months. But he's secretly consuming his own product (the urine samples he gives his dad are ringers purchased from a pot-smoking hospital nurse); plus, he was institutionalized two years ago for reasons that aren't revealed until the film's final stretch. But the kid's not a psycho. He's kind and forward-looking, and he has a poetic sensibility.
Carolyn Burnham, meanwhile, is going through her own emotional crisis?one that's partly brought on by her husband's rebellious behavior and increasingly sarcastic and cutting remarks. She flirts openly at a party with a self-satisfied local real estate king (another great supporting performance by Peter Gallagher, suffused with the bland certitude of the infomercial age) and pretty soon they're screwing like crazed jackrabbits in a motel and he's talking about divorcing his wife.
In lesser hands, much of this material could be tiresome or oppressive (Happiness was both). There are so many familiar (even trite) elements that it's hard to know where to begin listing them: the defeated suburban husband who lusts after his daughter's best friend; the pert but empty-souled wife who is obsessed with success and interrupts sex on a couch with her husband to warn him not to spill beer on the expensive upholstery; the Boo Radleyesque neighbor who turns out to be a strange kind of angel; the supposedly slutty girl whose sluttiness might be a put-on; the homophobic, borderline Naziesque ex-jarhead whose home is so regimented and orderly that it's sterile and dead. And there are a couple of serious structural problems, the most obvious of which is that after going to such trouble to establish Lester's infatuation with Angela, Angela disappears for the entire middle section of the film, and Lester rarely mentions, thinks or dreams about her during that period.
But these aren't crippling flaws. Moment to moment and scene to scene, Ball's script is precise and funny, and Mendes' direction is efficient and consistently entertaining (he knows how to pause before a visual joke, then move the camera or cut at exactly the right moment to give you the punchline). Conrad L. Hall's muted widescreen photography captures both the loveliness and the forlorn sameness of suburban homes.
Most crucially, unlike Solondz and his misanthropic doppelganger, Neil LaBute, the makers of American Beauty see people as more than warm-blooded, two-legged bugs to be studied and then squashed; they see them as interesting and funny and worthy of sympathy even when?perhaps especially when?they are throwing away their own decent lives.
American Beauty's cast is peerless, but towering above the rest is Spacey, an emotional chameleon of singular bravery. On film sets and in public appearances, he is, by most accounts, a ferociously confident, even conceited individual. Yet he seems to care less about being liked onscreen (or flattered by his scripts and directors) than any major American actor, except perhaps for Harvey Keitel. Lester is a great role, to be sure, but it's not one to be tackled by fainthearted performers, or ones who see only the character's milquetoast surface. The easiest approach would have been to play this man as a Walter Mitty gone way bad?a sweet, innocent casualty of the corporatized, mass-marketed American dream machine who becomes a liberated (if reckless) hedonist. Spacey, one of the smartest actors alive, goes much deeper than that. He makes Lester a self-aware man who is complicit in his own delusion. Lester's realization that his life is a sham becomes, in Spacey's hands, not a sudden, out-of-nowhere revelation, but a conscious confirmation of suspicions he'd been chewing on for years. Lester's struggle here is not to face the unknown and find his lost self, but to come to grips with, and then defiantly reject, the known truth about his own deluded life and the world around it.
Spacey has the face of a middle manager or a high school principal or a teenager's cool, funny father. His face and body are distinctive on the big screen only because they're so indistinct, so ordinary. Yet his sly voice undermines the facade of ordinariness. It's a voice that seems typical, even bland, but contains engrossing and perhaps terrifying secrets?the voice of answering machines and public radio, psychotherapy and self-help, traffic cops with ticket pads and bosses who quietly call you into the office to talk to you in private for just one second, then send you back to clean out your desk. His voice italicizes hidden meanings and foregrounds the fake courtesy and fake morality of so much modern discourse; and when he flips out, he's hilarious because his characters are usually trying very hard to flip out in a somewhat controlled and purposeful manner. His presence in American cinema is a comfort and a threat. He's a scalding, honest and funny actor, and deeply human.
There's a scene near the end of American Beauty where Lester asks a simple question about his daughter, then hears a simple answer that makes him feel fine; his reply is two single-syllable words: "That's great." It's impossible to describe here just how much emotion and meaning Spacey packs into those two words. There is pride in his voice, and comfort, but also regret that he's not young and never will be young again. There's a bit of fear in there, too, fear that Jane might not be happy in life, plus sadness that he won't be able to save her from unhappiness. And yet, paradoxically, there's joy in those two words as well?joy that for all his fatherly and husbandly misery, he is alive and awake and has at least been able to watch his daughter grow up. In two words, Spacey captures a man's whole life. That's great.
The Museum of Modern Art is showing a retrospective of 10 good anime films from Sept. 16-26. All are from Studio Ghibli in Japan, and though they cover wildly different subject matter, they all share certain qualities: visual richness, inventive but unflashy storytelling and a determination to appeal to both children and adults without pandering to either group. Of the 10 films on display, my picks are Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.; Sept. 19, 2:30 p.m.), Isao Takahata's astounding ghost story about how the memories of nuclear hellfire literally haunt modern Japan; Castle in the Sky (1986, Sept. 18, 2:30 p.m.; Sept. 25, noon), Hayo Miyazaki's fantasy about a young girl whose necklace contains an entire other world?a miniaturized cloud city; and My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Sept. 19, noon; Sept. 25, 3 p.m.), a soaring fantasy about a giant furry creature who only a couple of young girls can see.
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