By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

You know you’re in the hands of a true filmmaker when you feel invited, at every turn, to share his sense of entrancement. I got that feeling in just about every frame of American Beauty. It’s an exquisitely designed, rather kinky tragicomedy set in a nameless American suburb, and its images have a velvety, saturated richness, as if life had become a candyland of upward mobility. This vaguely ominous Pop-art suburbia, a Twilight Zone cross between the ’50s and the present, is the latest variation on the ones in Blue Velvet, Edward Scissorhands, The Truman Show, and Happiness. It’s middle-class America as paradise, plastic prison, and reverie, all at the same time.

The director, Sam Mendes, is a British theater director making his screen debut, and though it’s obvious that he’s going to lose no time digging into the corrupt, wormy underbelly of this pristine landscape, Mendes also cherishes the sensual and dramatic possibilities of a stylized tract-house fantasia. American Beauty is about a ”normal” nuclear family whose members are drowning in pain because they’ve lost the ability to see beyond exteriors, and the film lays bare the dreams that they covet. Mendes has a filmmaker’s essential, seductive gift: He doesn’t just tell a story — he gives great surface.

Lester and Carolyn Burnham (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) may have been in love once, but they’ve grown distant and terse, and their distance has turned to poison. It’s no wonder that their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), has turned out to be one of those sulky, selfish teenagers with exquisite radar and a scowl smeared across her delicate features. Lester works as a corporate slave at a media-marketing magazine, and he hates his life — the drone job, the socialite wife who sells real estate and puts a price tag on her feelings, the daughter who freezes him out. He jump-starts each day by masturbating in the shower, and it’s all downhill from there. A kind of self-lacerating ’90s Willy Loman, Lester may sound depressing, but Spacey, his voice powered by hidden frequencies of soft mockery, has a singular, ironic gift for making a character downright jaunty about his own misery.

At a basketball game, Lester and Carolyn stare glumly as Jane cavorts in a halftime cheerleading show. Then, right there on the gym floor, Lester beholds a vision: Angela (Mena Suvari), the blond, dirty-delectable American princess. At that moment, something snaps; he has never wanted anything more than he wants that girl. In Lester’s daydream, she’s nude and beckoning, her body submerged in rose petals, and when he learns that she’s Jane’s best friend, he hatches a plan. He’ll abandon everything he has for the chance to sleep with her.

Like Election, American Beauty gets a sneaky charge out of the devious ways its trapped-and-wriggling characters try to disentangle themselves. In a triumphantly funny scene of office vengeance, Lester quits his job and blackmails his boss, and he begins to pump iron, smoke dope, and take out his old ’70s tapes. He’s like a suburban Travis Bickle — off his rocker, but happy about it. He’s got a cause now. Carolyn, meanwhile, restarts her sexual engines by plunging into a hot-sheets affair with the local real estate honcho (Peter Gallagher), and Jane forms a friendship with her new classmate and neighbor, a voyeur named Ricky who films everything (including her) with a video camera, but not because he’s sleazy. He’s pining, he says, for beauty — for the lost reality of things. Newcomer Wes Bentley makes Ricky a very gentle owl: the artist-freak next door.

Lester finally makes a play for the randy, manipulative Angela, only to discover that the teen-vamp goddess of his fantasies is just that: a fantasy, an illusion. In his lust to be a man, he corners himself into the world of surface all over again. That’s a dandy resolution, I suppose, for a movie about the insidious facade of suburbia, yet I can’t help but feel that there’s something a little pat and preconceived about American Beauty. I wish the film didn’t hinge so crucially on Ricky’s fascist ex-Marine father; Chris Cooper plays the part masterfully, but he remains a didactic cartoon of gun-nut America. As a portrait of the pain of waking up one day and feeling that your life has squashed you like a bug, American Beauty is bracing in its honesty, yet its ”dark” resolution is too easy, too riddled with signpost themes and messages. In the end, the film’s profundity is only skin-deep. B+

American Beauty

  • Movie
  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Sam Mendes