Aside from the rosy prime-time nostalgia of television, one dredges pop culture in vain for an upbeat view of life in the American suburb. Ever since Levittown, our cinema has, by all genre means possible, hacked away at the allegedly arid moonscapes that ring our cities, and pared down suburban life to silent breakfast-table wars between oppressed organization men, their frustrated wives, and a generation of resentful children itching to disown their privilege, first through free love and activism, then through Me Decade narcissism, and finally — so say the pundits — through the naysaying lethargy of Generation X. But if you think you‘ve seen it all in Edward Scissorhands, Serial Mom, The Ice Storm and Pleasantville, get ready for American Beauty.

Made with swaggery panache by transatlantic theater whiz Sam Mendes, who directed the acclaimed The Blue Room, the movie opens as a malicious tease hinting at a murder mystery surrounding its unpromising narrator. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a lowly ad man whose sagging shoulders and overhanging gut bespeak loser, not only in his own eyes but in those of his bosses, his overcompensatingly chipper wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and his insecure daughter, Jane, played with inspired sullenness by Thora Birch. By long habit, every member of the Burnham family has been subjugating their rage and secret desires to the narrow band of dogged conformity that gets them — just barely — through the day. When Lester, egged on by encounters with two youngsters exactly the age he was when he was at his happiest — Jane’s blond cheerleader friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and Ricky Fitts (newcomer Wes Bentley), a neighbor given to tracking Jane with a camera — starts shedding weight and responsibility by the pound in order to live free, he blows the cover of everyone in his orbit. The repressed returns unhinged: As the Burnhams run spectacularly amok, the movie‘s running joke is that the town’s most normal inhabitants are a twinlike gay couple named Jim and Jim.

Mendes has cannily turned his inexperience with film into an asset. Unfettered by allegiance to a single genre and pepped by Alan Ball‘s smart script, American Beauty darts between the bouncy pacing of venomous black comedy and the slow cadences of a moody character drama that reaches into dark places largely untouched by suburban satire, even in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Sidestepping the usual snobby caricatures of suburban decor, Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall achieve a discreetly chill loneliness that rises like fog off the gleaming kitchens and polished tables with their vases set dead center. In one scene, Ricky‘s mother, played with numb inertia by the wonderful Allison Janney, gazes around her spotless dining room and apologizes to a visitor for the mess. It could, like almost every other scene in the movie, be the occasion for a cheap, throwaway laugh, but Mendes has all the actors playing their characters straight, without so much as a wink at the camera. American Beauty has the feel of a movie that’s been extensively rehearsed. After a string of poorly chosen roles, Bening is back in top form, drumming up sympathy and sniggers in uncomfortably equal measure for Lester‘s desperate chatterbox of a wife, while Spacey plumbs beneath his bad-boy nonchalance to a man unraveling from one kind of loser into another, until at last he earns a kind of equanimity.

Less an attack on suburbanites than an indictment of the emotional death produced by isolation and commodity fetishism (Carolyn sells shoddy real estate), the ”beauty“ of the film’s title slithers around, attaching itself now to the pneumatic Angela, now to a mountain of rose petals, now — audaciously — to the violent undertow that tugs at the neighborhood‘s studied serenity. Barring one unfortunate scene that implies it’s okay to sleep with an underage slut but not with an underage virgin, American Beauty surprises you with a kind of hardheaded romanticism. In the end it is Ricky, the movie‘s eyes and ears, who holds the key to its ambiguous aesthetic. This troubled boy, who smiles faintly at the sight of a head covered in blood, also rejoices over an empty plastic bag blowing in the wind. ”There is this entire life behind things,“ he murmurs. And so there is, even in that shrine to thing-worship, the American suburb.

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