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Memphis Flyer More Than Skin Deep

'American Beauty' looks at the power of cheerleader briefs on a near-dead man

By Ashley Fantz

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  Lester Burnham is your dad, your grandfather, your uncle doing their best Al Bundy impression. When he's not preoccupied with writing for a trade magazine, he enjoys his La-Z-Boy and works on his paunch. He prefers grunts to sentences and adores a ham, turkey, and sausage hoagie more than he loves his materialistic wife, Carolyn. He is a father who is just there like a blob at the end of the dinner table, while his shar-pei-like undereye wrinkles droop depressingly into the mash potatoes.

Enter a blonde, aqua-eyed, gum-smacking teenager whose bubble butt can snake dance Lester into complete mush. Never underestimate the effect of cheerleader briefs on a near-dead man. One shot of that spandexed forbidden fruit could set off an inspiring, soul-searching midlife crisis, according to the filmmakers of uber-hyped American Beauty.

Kevin Spacey once again shows that he's a limitless actor as Lester. Armed with the talent to both interpret characters dramatically while maintaining impeccable comedic timing, Lester goes from a stereotypical boring dad to a man bent on reclaiming his long-gone vitality. He's empty, lonely, and depressed when he meets his daughter's best friend Angela, the catalyst for Lester's Olympically feeble demonstrations of his prowess.

Mena Suvari, previously objectified in American Pie, plays the stunning teenager. She is, in many ways, the quintessential Christie Brinkley-inspired American beauty. Appropriately clueless about what life juices she stirred in Lester, Angela comes off as a Lolita, flirting with the old man thus sending extra volts of encouragement through Lester's dormant hormones. Although Suvari is perfectly cast, her role is somewhat simple -- be ravishing and flirt, action! But the role of Burham's daughter, Jane, played by Thora Birch, whose previous works include Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger, is much more demanding. On first impression, Jane is a typical, angst-ridden teen. She appears plain in contrast to Suvari's Angela, but as the story unfolds, Jane becomes more complex and consequently more beautiful. The title of the film seems purposefully ambiguous. American beauty is found in more places than a Tommy Hilfiger model.

Annette Bening's Carolyn is taken directly from any small community. She measures her happiness by prowling up a thorny social vine clinging to every American country club. The right clothes, the right cell phone insta-dial, the right garden -- filled with the flower most often equated with perfect passion -- roses. Carolyn lives her life in a glass world. She watches life go by as if it's a sitcom, listening only to its joys and sorrows through a muffled Windexed existence. Bening doesn't have to shed her natural class for this role. The more elegant she tries to appear as her career as a real estate developer unravels and her husband's bizarre behavior increases, the more desperately funny she becomes.

A strong supporting cast gives credence to American Beauty's Oscar buzz. Chris Cooper plays retired marine Colonel Fitts, the Burnham's next-door neighbor. He may have left the military but is still very much Full Metal Jacket clinical. Fitts is no fan of the gay couple down the street, played with dead-pan humor by Scott Bakula and Sam Robards. It's obvious that director Sam Mendes comes from a theatrical background -- his latest works include Cabaret and Nicole Kidman's Broadway vehicle The Blue Room. It's common for a major Hollywood picture to develop so many outside characters smoothly that it either makes the plot seem contrived or confused. American Beauty is the exception. The actors appear comfortable with themselves and in tune to all the problems that accompany their characters.

But most critics will single out Spacey, who gained and lost 30 pounds during the shoot. At times, it's difficult to tolerate Lester as an imbecilic, almost misogynist caveman. But his behavior is so Everyman that he evokes mostly sympathy as does the rest of American Beauty's warped Scissorhandian cast.

Double Jeopardy

The filmmakers of Double Jeopardy were so busy dotting the i's and crossing the t's that they forgot what this movie was supposed to be: a thriller. What it is instead is a series of establishment shots, with nary a moment to make the heart race -- might as well call it a flatliner.

While most movies are bad, this one doesn't necessarily need be. On Double Jeopardy's roster is director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Crimes of the Heart), screenwriters David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook (The Rock), and actors Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd. And the premise isn't half-bad: Libby (Judd) is sent to prison for killing her husband, only to learn that he's alive and living with their son and her best friend. A fellow inmate tells her about the double-jeopardy clause in the Constitution. Since she can't be convicted of the same crime twice, she can really kill her husband and not face another prison term. She gets out and goes to a halfway house run by probation officer Travis Lehman (Jones). She says she'll keep her nose clean, though she's already plotting to get to her husband.

Unfortunately, there's not enough of Libby going to kill her husband. Rather, we're treated to the stages of Libby. Stage One: the rich, happily married, and beautifully groomed Libby (to show that she can handle herself at a gala). Stage Two: the buff prison Libby, first abused and then holding her own (to show that she can take it as well as dish it out), complete with long hair to denote the passing of time. Stage Three: the free-at-last Libby, a combination of the first two stages (to show that she'll use all of her past experiences to get what she wants). Couple this with a few lingering shots of musicians in New Orleans (for that authentic feel), throw in a sliver of The Fugitive, and tack on a truly ill-conceived ending, and you've got Double Jeopardy.

It's not much to look at. -- Susan Ellis

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