Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix For the Roses

Kevin Spacey puts the bloom in "American Beauty"

By Peter Keough

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Nothing beats death for establishing a detached, omniscient point of view, and from the very beginning of Sam Mendes's haunting and accomplished debut feature (and one of the year's first significant films), it's made clear that its hero, middle-aged, middle-class lost soul Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a goner. Lester's flashback voiceover narration has the sardonic serenity of the beyond, an anarchistic wisdom as he observes himself jerking off in the shower ("This will be the highlight of my day"), spies on wife Carolyn (a strident and fragile Annette Bening) tending the title roses ("See how her clogs match the handles of her pruning shears? It's not a coincidence."), or looks in on sullen and unhappy daughter Jane (Thora Birch, with soulful, accusing eyes) surfing the Internet for breast augmentation sites ("I'd tell her things get better, but I don't want to lie"). His secret? "In less than a year, I'll be dead. . . . But in a sense, I'm dead already."

Who actually kills Lester is a mystery. Is it Jane, who's shown on video saying her dad is a "lame-o" who should be put out of his misery? Carolyn, who takes out her frustrations at the shooting range? Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), the new neighbor with the militant right-wing views and the extensive firearms collection? In the end, it makes no difference.

As for Lester's spiritual death, it's one of the most common themes in American literature and film, and Mendes and first-time writer Alan Ball deserve credit for bringing this hollow man to life. Mostly, though, it's Spacey's movie, as his impeccable timing, coy superciliousness and rueful knowingness provide the tone and tension that illuminate it. Like the gimpy loser he played in The Usual Suspect, his Lester starts out unimpressively, embarrassing himself in front of his wife and daughter both in social settings and at the dinner table. But Spacey's diabolical smile suggests that his days as suburban doormat adrift in a '90s updating of John Cheever's white-collar wasteland (the film is reminiscent of that writer's "The Country Husband") will not be for long.

His rebirth begins at a high-school basketball game where he and Carolyn, in a misconceived attempt to be better parents, watch Jane run through a new dance routine with the cheerleading squad. His patient gaze changes to ardor as the camera singles out the nubile features of Angela (vivid newcomer Mena Suvari), whose insinuating smile seems meant just for him. Mendes, however, overplays the moment: a spotlight shines on Angela, everyone else in the gym disappears, and she opens her blouse to unleash a cascade of rose petals, the hallmark of Lester's fantasy sequences, and one of the film's less compelling metaphors for beauty.

Mendes is more restrained in Lester's second epiphany, when at a shindig for Carolyn's real-estate job he slips out back with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, like a laconic Christian Slater with spooky presence), the colonel's son, who's catering the affair. Tiny figures framed by a blank wall and the asphalt of a parking lot, the two get loopy and hilarious on the dope that is the real source of Ricky's income. "I think you're become my new personal hero," says Lester when Ricky quits and tells his intruding boss to get lost.

In effect Ricky becomes the film's hero, too, since he embodies the youth, idealism, and poetry that Lester abandoned along with his dream of owning a 1970 Firebird. Ricky also embodies much of the visual sense that distinguishes the style of this director (who's known for his striking stage productions of Cabaret and The Blue Room). Oppressed by his fascist dad (one of the film's few stereotypes that fails to transcend itself), Ricky buys video equipment with his dope money and shoots random moments of morbid beauty, such as a dead bird, a whirling plastic bag in a leaf-littered alley, and Lester's bruised-petal daughter. It's the beginning of a courtship between Ricky and Jane, and the interplay of self-conscious imagery, voyeurism, and desire recalls Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape and Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love.

Lester, meanwhile, pumps iron while stoned to get buff for Angela, extorts a year's severance pay from his soul-destroying job, and is mostly amused when his wife has an affair with Buddy Kane (a graying Peter Gallagher, looking like a monstrous fusion of George Hamilton and Michael Dukakis), the real-estate king. The details of the dead man's ultimate fate are a bit of a letdown, but as he posthumously notes, it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world, and in that regard, this near-masterpiece is true to its title.

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