It's a given rule of reviewing that one must approach every film with a certain sense of extreme objectivity--not only must one set aside all biases, but one theoretically must also abandon all that's going on in one's outside world and concentrate solely on the film. Of course, the achievement of such a tabula rasa state is an impossibility; while one can consciously escape into the world of a film, the events in one's outside life are embedded in the subconscious of the same mind which is used to register everything that occurs onscreen.
What does this have to do with American Beauty? This (admittedly heavyhanded) attempt at profundity seems oddly out of place in terms of what is being sold as--and, to a large degree, is--a dark comedy, and a wildly funny and unpredictable one at that. But for all the surprises in celebrated stage director Sam Mendes's unique, indescribable first film, the richest is how cathartic it is for the audience. Instead of being a distraction, all the emotional baggage that one carries into American Beauty serves as an enhancement--and as such, the film resonates in unexpectedly strong ways.
At first glimpse, however, American Beauty doesn't appear to be the type of film one could be deeply affected by. The stinging first hour delivers some of the most biting laughs in recent memory as it immerses the audience in the pathetic existence of Lester (Kevin Spacey), who bears the apt surname of "Burnham." At 42, he is as burned out on life as one can be, and with good reason: he is stuck in a dead-end job after 14 years, trapped in a now-passionless union with his career-obsessed real estate agent wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and saddled with bitter teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Lester's only reason for living is his daily morning shower masturbation session--that is, until he catches a glimpse of Jane's friend and fellow cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari).
From the above, American Beauty could be pegged as a contemporary, blackly comic riff on Lolita, but Alan Ball's layered script continually branches off in fresh and unexpected directions. Lester's rejuvenating lust for Angela is but one of several plot threads intricately woven into the film, whose cast of front-burner characters grows to include the Burnham's neighbor Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), a strict U.S. Marine; his son Ricky (Wes Bentley), an outsider who videotapes everything he sees; and Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the self-proclaimed "king of real estate" whom Carolyn admires. As relationships within this circle of characters constantly shift, so does the tone of the film, between mean comedy to earnestly felt emotion, eventually giving into the latter in the film's second half.
It is not so much for that reason that American Beauty defies conventional categorization than the manner in which it blends disparate elements; that is, incredibly seamlessly. Credit Ball and especially Mendes, who knows not to simply strike the major note of each given scene but also touch on the undertones that will take prominence in others. Even in the more outrageous, laugh-inducing moments, a darker, more serious undercurrent can always be felt. Part of this has to do with an ominous piece of information that Lester divulges in voiceover in the film's opening minutes: "In less than a year, I will be dead."
The deft meshing of the comic and the tragic is best exemplified by the characters. This group of people is far from the most likable bunch one can encounter; in fact, often they are flat-out unlikable, and much of the film's humor is derived from that point. But for all their comic value, the characters aren't caricatures; they're painfully human. Underneath their frequently selfish actions lies their shared motivation: a grave emotional desperation. That deeper dimension comes through in every one of the actors' performances; even the younger members of the cast hold
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