What is it about American suburban life that Hollywood finds so exciting? Ever since World War II, it seems, filmmakers have been turning out steamy dramas and racy comedies about suburban infidelity and rebellion, while ignoring the notion that, in real life, suburbia has generally been more about malaise than revolution.
American Beauty, director Sam Mendes' stylish, wry take on the suburban way of life taps into restlessness and baby-boomer anxiety to tell the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, in a bravura performance), a fortyish man on the brink of a mid-life crisis, and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), who watches her husband's desperate transformation before staging her own personal revolt.
Lester's slide from grace has a forbidden-fruit quality that approaches the surreal, if not the Clintonesque. One minute Lester is griping, dad-like, about missing the James Bond marathon on TNT, and practically the next minute he is flat-out smitten by Angela (Mena Suvari), an attractive high-school cheerleader no older than his daughter Jane (Thora Birch).
Over the next few days, the Burnham household begins emotionally crumbling. Carolyn embarks on a wild affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the local 'king of real estate.' But Lester is so obsessed with the stunning adolescent Angela that he scarcely notices. Introduced to his wife's paramour, who doesn't recall having met him before, Lester mutters, 'I wouldn't remember me either.' So low is Lester's self-esteem that he takes a job in a fast-food restaurant. But before too long, Lester will begin to get some attention.
Teenager Ricky (played convincingly by Wes Bentley), who lives next door to the Burnhams, obsessively films their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) through her bedroom window with a zoom lens. Ricky's ex-Marine colonel father (Chris Cooper) keeps a souvenir Nazi dinner plate in the china closet and tries to monitor the boy's every move, even demanding urine samples from him in the middle of the night. Ricky and Lester bond while smoking some government-strength pot, which sends Lester even further over the edge. 'I wanna look good naked!' Lester bellows to a couple of gay neighbors, who politely turn away from his exuberant madness.
In spite of its faux generic title, American Beauty starts off so confidently and cleverly that a viewer can't help thinking this will be one of the year's best comedies. Broadway director Mendes of Cabaret renown (making his movie debut) and first-time screenwriter Alan Ball, who wrote for TV's 'Cybill' for three years, certainly keep the fast-paced narrative moving, but what, at first, promises to be an insightful satirical look at a suburban American family unravels into a familiar tale of infidelity and rebellion. 'I'm just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose,' Lester Burnham proclaims, and maybe that's the point, but American Beauty seems intent on combining steamy drama and racy comedy, with only a nod toward pervading malaise.