American Beauty (1998)

D: Sam Mendes
S: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening

Mesmerising suburban satire from theatre director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball featuring Kevin Spacey in a commanding performance as a husband and father undergoing a mid-life crisis which eventually becomes a redemptive epiphany. As a frustrated office drone, Spacey's life is empty and worthless. His daughter (Thora Birch) is an angst-ridden sub-goth who hates him. His wife (Annette Bening) is an equally frustrated real-estate salesperson envious of the success of an attractive rival (Peter Gallagher). The highpoint of his day, he tells us in the opening voice-over, is masturbating the shower, and, we are also informed, he has less than a year to live. When ex-Marine Chris Cooper and strange son Wes Bentley move in next door, all of their lives undergo revealing transformations. Meanwhile Spacey himself is struck with uncontrollable desire for Birch's cheerleader friend Mena Suvari (American Pie), sparking a series of vivid, surrealist dream sequences which trigger our awareness that this is not intended to work as conventional narrative entertainment. Mendes and Ball establish a convincing world of American family dysfunction, but, as the film's advertising campaign advises, we need to "look closer" in order to uncover the many contradictions and hypocrisies which underlie even the surface horrors of contemporary emotional and psychological duress.

It sounds demanding, but in fact American Beauty works best as a dark comedy. On a dramatic level it is not always satisfying. It is intellectually impoverished by comparison with the classic surrealist films, relying too heavily on cliché and caricature for real social penetration. There are also too many plot contrivances and convenient chunks of self-aware conversation, especially those involving Bentley, who comes off as a more pretentious version of the character played by Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore (a film whose surrealist bent bears more than a passing resemblance to that employed here). Luckily, Ball's dialogue crackles with absurdist humour and Mendes draws great performances from his cast. This, coupled with the film's invitation to explore its dream-like landscape as a fantasia on reality rather than a hard-edged social drama, allows us to let many of its lapses go. One that doesn't escape notice is Bening's character, who is given much less depth than the others. We neither empathise nor sympathise with this whiny cypher of capitalist self-absorption. Though everyone else gets to develop and expand, she unfortunately embarks on a doomed affair with sexual slapstick which eventually results in little more than a series of hysterical sobbing scenes. Her attempts at growth and change are themselves parodied (her obsession with salesman psychobabble is good for laughs, but not much else), and though she is given a final scene which suggests her character can feel pain, we don't share it.

Spacey, on the other hand, has a plum role and plays it marvelously. Ball provides his regression to adolescent irresponsibility with plenty of choice details (taking a job at a burger joint, listening to 70s rock music driving a Firebird, fantasising about Suvari, etc.) and Spacey revels in the opportunity to explore how being a jerk can eventually bring you happiness. It's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role, which is incredible given how relatively short a time Spacey has been a star of this magnitude (think that seven years ago, he was the unknown in the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross ). Though the character is less than appealing, and though his story is actually one of self-indulgence, you eventually come to care about him and his fate, and, in a beautiful twist, Ball and Mendes give us a satisfying resolution which is more optimistic and uplifting than suburbia (or the character) necessarily deserves.

The film is sharply photographed by Conrad Hall and delicately scored by Thomas Newman. The production design and set decorations (by Naomi Shohan and Jan K. Bergstrom) create a wonderful sense of the antiseptic world of late nineties middle class catalogue culture (also satirised in yet another American surrealist film of the era, Fight Club), and Hall enjoys exploring the balance of bland tones and colours in relation to the vivid splashes of red seen in the dream scenes as rose petals and seen eventually as pools of blood. Newman's score is typically understated, blending nicely with the film's pace and visual style. On a technical level, everything is smooth and accomplished, overall the classiest film yet to come out of DreamWorks SKG.

American Beauty is not necessarily quite the revelation it seems intended to be, but it is good. It isn't anything substantially different from surrealist satires from Buñuel to Sitcom, although it is the most remarkable example of the style in mainstream American cinema for some time. As a critique of both the 1990s and the 1970s, it has its points, but it does suffer from a devotion Freud which doesn't always serve it well. It is interesting to see how this wave of surrealist films has crested with eXistenZ, Rushmore, Fight Club, American Beauty, and the upcoming Being John Malkovich, and one wonders if this is the result of late twentieth-century anxiety about the certainties of life in postmodern America or just a trend. American Beauty is a hypnotic, meticulously crafted film and it ranks among the best films of the year. It is the first unmissable movie of the year 2000 in Ireland, and it is well worth seeing. Whether it has the staying power remains to be seen. It's best that you make up your mind for yourself, of course, and see if looking closer really brings the rewards you might expect.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.