From its first gliding aerial shot of a generic suburban street, American Beauty
moves with a mesmerising confidence and acuity epitomised by Kevin Spacey's calm narration. Spacey is Lester Burnham, a harried Everyman whose midlife awakening is the spine of the story, and his very first lines hook us with their teasing fatalism--like Sunset Boulevard
's Joe Gillis, Burnham tells us his story from beyond the grave. It's an audacious start for a film that justifies that audacity. Weaving social satire, domestic tragedy and whodunit into a single package, Alan Ball's first theatrical script dares to blur generic lines and keep us off balance, winking seamlessly from dark, scabrous comedy to deeply moving drama. The Burnham family joins the cinematic short-list of great dysfunctional American families, as Lester is pitted against his manic, materialistic realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, making the most of a mostly unsympathetic role) and his sullen, contemptuous teenaged daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, utterly convincing in her edgy balance of self-absorption and wistful longing). Into their lives come two catalytic outsiders. A young cheerleader (Mena Suvari) jolts Lester into a sexual epiphany that blooms into a second adolescence. And an eerily calm young neighbour (Wes Bentley) transforms both Lester and Jane with his canny influence. Credit another big-screen newcomer, English theatrical director Sam Mendes, with expertly juggling these potentially disjunctive elements into a superb ensemble piece that achieves a stylised pace without lapsing into transparent self-indulgence. Mendes has shrewdly insured his success with a solid crew of stage veterans, yet he has also made an inspired discovery in Bentley, whose Ricky Fitts becomes a fulcrum for both plot and theme. Cinematographer Conrad Hall's sumptuous visual design further elevates the film, infusing the beige interiors of the Burnhams' lives with vivid bursts of deep crimson, the colour of roses--and of blood. --Sam Sutherland
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a man in mid-life crisis; his estate agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), despises him, while teenage daughter Jane is disgusted by the obsession he develops with her attractive friend Angela (Mena Suvari). In an attempt to recapture the lost days of his youth, Lester takes a job flipping burgers, and begins working out in his garage to the strains of 'Dark Side of the Moon'. He also rediscovers the joys of recreational drugs, supplied by new neighbour Ricky Fitts - who has also started dating Jane. Brit director Sam Mendes' film won five Oscars, including Best Director, Picture, Actor and Screenplay.