A middle-aged office drone finds himself besotted with his daughter's teenage friend and sets about reinvigorating his life.
Released in America to a tumult of superlatives and Oscar chitchat, British director Sam Mendes' exceptional take on pre-millennial American ordinary people going nuts is simultaneously achingly funny and bitingly moving. It also presents he-who-can-do-no-wrong, Kevin Spacey, with the kind of richly-textured, grandstanding centrepiece that he just devours, rocking the screen with scintillating comic timing while instilling the film with an understated sadness that beautifully expresses its magical but troubled heart. It should be a career defining role, but for Spacey it's another in a canon of 'career bests'. Still, when you consider he is surrounded by brilliant turns from Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch and new boy Wes Bentley, you start to see how much more this is than just a sophisticate's soap opera.
Curiously furrowing similar turf to the more testosterone-heavy Fight Club, American Beauty is about male empowerment and self-discovery, with mid-life as coma where the only answer is a Zen-themed search for 'whatever makes you happy'. Both films share super-charged fire-me-if-you-dare sequences and quasi-profound diatribes against household goods. Where Beauty surpasses the Brad/Ed battery pack, however, is in its devotion to humanity and, ultimately, love as the prizes so frustratingly out of reach.
Spacey's human punchbag Lester Burnham finds rebirth after his daughter's jailbait buddy Angela (Suvari) zings his long-buried sexual antennae. Immediately he starts pumping iron, develops a range of taking-no-more-shit retorts and drops out of his dronehead job to flip burgers at the local drive-thru. Alongside his freefall are his wife Carole (Bening)'s more direct self-destruction and his estranged daughter Jane's (Birch) own sexual awakening.
Alan Ball's cynically-charged script plants this dysfunctional satire in a community so off-balance it is borderline David Lynch weirdo-Americana - the Burnhams' new neighbour, ex-military man Chris Cooper, heads a regimented household, which is a terrifyingly real depiction of an utterly inert family deadened by emotional tyranny.
Unusual for such people-focused comedy-drama is the vivid visual style. In among Burnham's sexual and human reawakening are dreamy visions of Suvari sumptuously smothered with nothing but scarlet rose petals. Mendes also paints his affluent Anywhereville with a worndown quality, all saturated colours and blank walls, throwing in outlandish angles to evoke the skewed normality of these fractured lives. Oddball teen neighbour Wes Bentley, clinically romantic about Burnham's daughter and chief preacher of the film's look-for-the-true-beauty philosophy, constantly Camcords the world around him, allowing Mendes to play cool games with shots within shots.
A contrived framing device forces the ending into whodunnit silliness it doesn't need, and caricatures float around the edges - Peter Gallagher's smarmbucket real estate king hastily shagging Bening's tormented wife is funny but depthless, although these are minor imperfections.
An incisive, deliriously funny and profound vision of the American Dream hitting meltdown.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan