Behind the camera, Beauty's driving forces are new to movies, but their theatrical résumés are faultless a fact that did not escape the deep pockets at DreamWorks. The screenwriter, playwright Alan Ball, is the author of dark absurdist comedies such as Five Women Wearing the Same Dress and The Two Mrs. Trumps and a mainstay behind TV's Cybill and Grace Under Fire. British-born director Sam Mendes gave New York theatergoers Nicole Kidman (all of her) in The Blue Room and oversaw radical revivals of Cabaret on both sides of the Atlantic. Both men have taken to film with the ease of old hands, and they aren't afraid to experiment.
American Beauty is set in a leafy unnamed suburb where an unnameable crisis grips a family called the Burnhams. The movie observes them at a surreal tilt, but they could be almost any family anywhere. At 42, paunchy Lester Burnham (Spacey) has run out of gas as a husband and father, and his job as a magazine writer has degenerated into tedium. Efficient, well-scrubbed Carolyn Burnham (Bening) conjures up a happy face each morning, then sets out for the real-estate wars armed with a halfhearted mantra: "I will sell this house today." Their sullen teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), stews in confusion and resentment.
Something's got to give, or give out, in these lives of quiet desperation just as it does in the troubled suburbia of John Updike or on the emotional tundra of The Ice Storm. Here, it seems to happen all at once, and to all three Burnhams. First, downtrodden Lester is revivified by the vision of a blond Lolita. That the object of his obsession happens to be his daughter's best friend, a calculating sylph named Angela (Mena Suvari), matters not at all; he leaps into his fantasy-ridden second childhood like an inflamed teenager. He imagines the fatalistic Angela reclining in a bath of blood-red roses, then buys himself a blood-red '70 Firebird because it's the car he always wanted.
Unhappy Carolyn undertakes an affair with the competition, an oily real-estate king named Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). And Jane slowly discovers Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the boy next door: Little matter that the boy next door is a secretive drug dealer obsessed with shooting video footage and that his father is an abusive ex-Marine colonel (Chris Cooper).
Lester's breakout is a hilarious and harrowing spectacle of midlife crisis, and the gifted Spacey calmly nudges it to the edge of madness. "I feel like I've been in a coma and I'm just now waking up," he marvels. So Lester chucks his job. He starts smoking pot and lifting weights in the garage. He finally retaliates against a dismissive boss and a contemptuous wife. Befogged by stupid lust, but pure of purpose, he reinvents himself. Meanwhile, the confirmed ironists in the house can't help remembering the bleak page Ball and Mendes have borrowed from Sunset Boulevard: Lester has told us in the first minute of the movie that he'll be dead by the end of it.
Therefore, in Conrad Hall's stunning cinematography, the color red dominates the red of a perfect single rose and the Burnhams' tidy front door, the red of passion and sacrifice, danger and death. It's safe to say you leave the theater seeing red.
In the meantime, American Beauty takes dead aim at our native obsessions with youth, beauty and success, and satirizes the distress and disorder hidden in tree-lined middle-class America with uncommon accuracy. Ball and Mendes are not the first to mine this vein, but the boldness of their attack and their brash commingling of violence and farce, outrage and tenderness add up to a profoundly moving experience. Almost against our will, we find ourselves laughing wildly when Carolyn discovers Lester masturbating in their bed. We're crushed when the distrustful, incoherent Col. Fitts bashes his poor son in the mouth. We must nod our heads in assent when the best-adjusted people in the neighborhood turn out to be gay lovers, both named Jim (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards).
Faith is besieged in this suburban wasteland, but dark laughter survives. We must crack up when Carolyn and her slick new lover drive up to the delivery window at a franchise joint and her own husband, gotten up in a paper cap, hands out the burgers and the malts along with a verbal coup de grâce.
The filmmakers throw wicked barbs at the vanities and absurdities of the day, but in the damaged kids all portrayed in intricate detail there's a ray of light. The tormented Ricky, who must view the world through a lens, discovers "there's an entire life behind things." Jane, alienated from her parents, begins to find what's real in herself. Even the conniving, self-conscious Angela can drop her conventionally pretty mask. Ricky may come off as a bit too insightful for an 18-year-old, but in a landscape so hilariously bleak, somebody has to know the score. By the end, we're just as interested in what happens to Ricky as in who will kill Lester.
To report that American Beauty is a deeply disconcerting view of American life is to underestimate it. To claim that it's howlingly funny does no justice to its scope. Let's just say that it gracefully defies the usual categories and gets under your skin in ways you cannot anticipate, then works its way straight toward the heart. For our money, it's far and away the bravest and best movie of the year.
Opens Sept. 24.