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Getting It Both Ways

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American Beauty

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Alan Ball

With Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, and Allison Janney.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

American Beauty is a brilliant satirical diagnosis of what's most screwed up about life in this country, especially when it comes to sexual frustration and kiddie porn. Or American Beauty is a hypocritical piece of kiddie porn, brilliantly exploiting an audience's sexual frustration and turning it into coin. Take your pick.

Paradoxical as it sounds, both of these statements may be true. American Beauty is, after all, a Hollywood movie, like The Graduate (1967) and Risky Business (1983), two somewhat comparable historical markers that gleefully conflate social criticism and fantasy wish fulfillment so you can't tell them apart. Whether American Beauty will become a hit like those earlier movies is hard to predict, but if it doesn't it won't be for lack of trying. Like The Graduate, it sympathizes with rebellion and satirizes complacency, but that doesn't stop it from taking digs at sexually deprived middle-aged women as if they were somehow the root of all evil. And as in Risky Business, its exposure of cynicism and corruption periodically becomes a celebration of the same things. It isn't surprising that this DreamWorks movie is the love child of Steven Spielberg, who bought the script and hired the director, for it revels in the same sort of exalted and exhilarating doublethink that has made much of his fortune. Though it lacks the cynicism and crassness of last year's Happiness, it shows a related talent for working both sides of the street.

However, unlike Mumford--another ambitious comedy-drama opening this week that's pitched as a sort of State of the Union address--American Beauty can't be accused of wrapping an audience in the comforting cocoon of nostalgia. Yearning for an older version of America and American movies constitutes both the appeal and the limitation of Mumford, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan's parable about a mysterious young man (Loren Dean) with the same name as the small town he moves into, posing as a trained psychologist. It's a movie so pleased with its brand of folk wisdom that it can easily con you into overlooking the sketchiness of its characters. The characters in American Beauty are similarly designed to illustrate lessons, but it's part of the strength of Alan Ball's screenplay that most of the lessons seem to be worth learning.

This isn't to claim that everything in American Beauty is new, but it does have a welcome freshness. Its writer-coproducer and its director are both newcomers to movies. Ball has a background in theater and TV and is perhaps best known as a writer for the TV series Cybill; Sam Mendes is the much-celebrated stage director of The Blue Room (a reworking of Arthur Schnitzler's most famous play, starring Nicole Kidman) and the recent revival of Cabaret. I haven't seen either of those productions, but I'm told that part of what's impressive about them is their inventive handling of space. The same could be said for American Beauty. Like Mike Nichols in The Graduate, Mendes seems elated to be adapting and expanding his stage-bound mise en scene (aided by the exquisite lighting of cinematographer Conrad Hall), an elation that can be seen in his camera moves and his choices of pop tunes. (He's even more daring than Nichols when he makes an unmotivated lighting change--the sort of thing that's common onstage--to underscore the movie's first indication that its teenage heroine has a crush on its teenage hero.) And like Paul Brickman in Risky Business, he knows how to use the euphorically percussive and propulsive repetitions of New Age music--what sounds like wind chimes accompanied by a pile driver--to chart the stages of his hero's success.

Of course the casting of a known quantity like Kevin Spacey can't match the debut of either Dustin Hoffman in Nichols's movie or Tom Cruise in Brickman's. As an offscreen narrator who indicates at the outset that his character--like William Holden's at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard--is speaking from beyond the grave, Spacey doesn't even belong in the same ballpark. Moreover, the character he plays, Lester Burnham, is a squashed suburbanite with a wife he no longer sleeps with (Annette Bening), an alienated teenage daughter he rarely thinks about (Thora Birch, in the Christina Ricci part), and a long-time job as an editor and writer he's about to lose; he isn't an affluent young man starting out in the world but a somewhat grizzled loser needing to be reborn.

His rebirth begins only after he overhears Angela (Mena Suvari), a friend and classmate of his daughter, say that she wouldn't mind having sex with him if he worked out and developed some muscles. Spurred by her comment and by various erotic fantasies about her, Lester launches an exercise program, the results of which become legible in Spacey's developing physique over the course of the film--rather like Raging Bull in reverse. Lester's newly won confidence sparks other changes in his life, including a kind of spiritual awakening that carries him through the remainder of the movie.

If you're wondering how an adult's desire to screw a teenager can prompt a spiritual awakening an audience can accept without gagging, you've hit on Mendes's most daunting challenge as a director. He passes with flying colors, though Lester isn't just a character with whom the audience is invited to sympathize but the object of a certain amount of satire--the point at which the parallels between this movie, The Graduate, and Risky Business become most apparent. The parallels break down and cease to become instructive when the daughter, Jane, and her next-door neighbor and eventual boyfriend, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), begin to overtake Lester as the heroes and moral exemplars of American Beauty; the narrative may belong to Lester, but its interpretation belongs in part to this secretive romantic couple. And just as the movie subtly and ambiguously divvies up its moral position between Lester and this couple, it also straddles the realms of porn and satire.

One reason the movie needs to negotiate these contradictions is that while all the major characters are crippled by repression, some are viewed as more worthy of redemption than others. Some are mainly victims, and some are mainly monsters. (Two minor characters seem to be exempt from this repression, a gay couple who function mainly as foils and props in the plot.) The most obvious sufferers are the Fittses: the father (Chris Cooper) is a homophobic and physically abusive retired marine colonel who periodically tests his son Ricky for drugs, the mother (Allison Janney) is a depressive in perpetual retreat, and Ricky, who pretends to cater to his father's whims, is a successful pot dealer and a compulsive voyeur with a video camera and a morbid fascination with death.

All these characters have a grotesque side, with the colonel receiving top honors. But Lester's wife, Carolyn--an aggressive real estate agent with a phony manner and an obsession with objects and cleanliness--is every bit as extreme a caricature. After she starts an affair with another real estate agent (Peter Gallagher), who gets her interested in firing guns to express her rage, her monstrous parallels with the colonel, who has a gun collection of his own, become fully apparent. (Lester and Ricky have parallels as good guys, one reason the script brings them together as friends and has them virtually duplicate each other's mystical speech about beauty in the world.) Both characters are so didactically conceived that even vigorous performances by Bening and Cooper fail to make them fully human. Moreover, they exist almost exclusively as foils to the other characters, defined mainly by their function as villains. It might be more accurate to say that they, along with Angela, start off as villains and wind up evoking pity, yet they remain one-note characters, lacking the flexibility and depth of Lester, Jane, and Ricky.

Saying that all the characters in American Beauty are victims wouldn't be entirely wrong. The movie is certainly adept at showing how awful life in the United States is at the moment--and that's what gives it some bite. But it's no less adept at taking that awfulness and making it pleasurable to watch--and that's what makes it entertaining. Whether two such projects can be compatible is a question worth raising--and that's what makes the movie puzzling and two-faced.

Clearly some deft ideological evasiveness is involved. David Denby's review in the New Yorker surmises, "You may...realize, with relief, that there's nothing of 60s cant in Ricky's vision. What he says is free of psychedelic nonsense or political ideology." Or you may realize, with regret, that there's plenty of 70s cant in this same vision and that this cant constitutes the film's political ideology; this self-centered and self-satisfied New Age spirituality is no better than "psychedelic nonsense," though it fits much more snugly (and smugly) within an upscale 90s notion of what isn't nonsense. By the same token, the movie is so boastful about its "daring" frankness regarding Lester's masturbation that you might not notice that it has broached more serious and equally taboo matters, such as the relation of the characters' sexual frustrations to capitalism and gun worship. (The movie makes the most of the parallels between Carolyn's and the colonel's attachment to guns in the crosscutting of the final sequence.)

It's a tribute to Mendes's skill as director that he can extract the maximal value from a script as ambitious and conflicted as this one--in part by giving body to its ambivalence rather than simply trying to sidestep it, in part by giving the impression that he can solicit from his actors everything about these characters that they're able to give. And he's particularly adept at creating rhyme effects between characters, such as showing how Lester and Carolyn each pursue self-empowerment by singing along with a favorite musical cut while driving alone. Some parts of the script--Lester going to work at a fast-food restaurant, the whole conception of Carolyn and the colonel, the burst of affirmative lyricism that accompanies the tragic finale--are too neat to be entirely believable. But if these are flaws--and I'm not sure that they are--they're flaws I can live with.

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