Under the inspired direction of Sam Mendes, a flawless cast invites and receives our compassion.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

With the quiet confidence of a winner, American Beauty snuck quietly into theaters and stunned opening-night audiences with its power. In expert hands, the film takes risks that allow it to succeed as a profound examination of the loss of self.

Fifty years after returning World War II veterans piled their belongings and new wives into cars and headed out of the cities, the suburbs they built on surrounding fields and hills are now nestled among mature trees. The houses may be bigger, but still they are boxes that contain family dramas that dare not burst through the front door that is the gateway to public scrutiny and social competition.

"This is my neighborhood; this is my street," says Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). And the big white house with the blue shutters and a red front door is his prison. It is also a prison for his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). Stepping out through the red door, Lester becomes an ad salesman for a media company, Carolyn a successful real-estate agent, and Jane a nervous high-school student. At home, love has turned to dust.

Lester seethes at Carolyn's brittle bearing and frozen smile, finally calling her "a bloodless, moneygrubbing freak." Carolyn fumes at Lester's mediocrity. Jane stares bitterly at her pretentious mother and remote father. As the camera finds the framed pictures of earlier, happier times, we realize that this family has reached the boiling point, that the house can no longer contain its misery.

When the members of this family reach out to outsiders-Lester to a classmate of his daughter (Mena Suvari), Carolyn to a handsome real-estate man (Peter Gallagher), Jane to a new neighbor (Wes Bentley)--their facades shrivel. At every turn, Alan Ball's intense screenplay offers deeper proof that there are no villains among these people, just husks of who they might have been, public performers, private tragedies. Under the inspired direction of Sam Mendes, a flawless cast invites and receives our compassion.

As the new neighbors, Chris Cooper and Wes Bentley build an agonizing portrait of a military father and an aesthete son, while Allison Janney plays the dead soul who is their wife and mother. Mena Suvari portrays the astonishing evolution of the tough-talking high-school flirt, while Thora Birch, as the angry daughter, maintains just enough vulnerability to break our hearts.

Annette Bening is superb as the wife whose rigid control is punctured by short bursts of private, racking sobs. She brings a great sense of timing to the occasional dark comedy of a grim life. Kevin Spacey's performance as Lester will probably not be topped this year. As he forces his character to burst free of his shackles-"It's a great thing when you surprise yourself"-he transcends tragedy and generates hope. American Beauty asks us to think about materialism, marriage, pretense, beauty, the suburbs, and the price we pay for the approval of society.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 495
Studio : Dreamworks
Running time : 2h2m

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