TORONTO REVIEW: "American Beauty" Showcases Pageant of Savage Wit
by Ray Pride
What Todd Solondz thought he was doing with "Happiness" may be what
director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball have accomplished with
breezy ease and sinister wit. "American Beauty" is an ensemble portrait
of the botched dreams of U.S. suburbia, suggesting an unnamed
ill-at-ease feeling that seems at first a lump of heartburn which will
soon turn out to be abiding heartache. "Stunning" is the Toronto
Festival catalog's adjective, and from the first frames, theater
director Mendes' movie debut radiates a rare formal intelligence.
Imagine the visual beauty and thematic sorrow of "The Ice Storm," but
with savage and profane jokes delivered with impeccable timing.
Ball's weave of sinister plot and sorrowful motivations can't be
untangled in a few hundred words, but here's an outline. Kevin Spacey's
adroit comic timing has never had a better showcase, playing Lester
Burnham, a trade magazine writer man whose mid-life crisis rapidly turns
nuclear family meltdown. Annette Bening is his equally frustrated
realtor wife, and Mendes gives her room to pull out the
Oscar-nominatable stops in several rueful crying jags.
The movie is rife with examples of the productive collaboration between
ace septuagenarian cinematographer Conrad Hall's knowledge of light and
color and the stage-trained Mendes' ("Cabaret," "The Blue Room")
patience in allowing dramatic, poignant pauses and entrances. One of
Bening's loneliest moments is typical of their approach. After failing
to sell a house, she closes the blinds of a sliding glass door. The room
dims, a slat or two of light creases her eyes. She chastises herself,
smacking her face, crying, "Stupid, stupid!", then composes herself and
walks from the empty room, the blinds swaying impotently in her wake.
Then, the empty, stage-like space is held for a second or two in a
stage-style coup de theatre that's quite lovely. (Bening's
heartwrenching squall of self-loathing is of course what is often called
"an actor's moment.")
The Burnhams have a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, a poker-faced
Modigliani) who one day introduces her father to her best friend, Angela
(a pluperfectly princessy Mena Suvari). Angela is introduced in a
forceful yet also in-jokey way, as the two are part of a cheerleading
squad doing a Paula Abdul-choreographed number to "On Broadway."
Watching the scene, you know Mendes has seen a Bob Fosse film or three.
But Mendes has more in common with Fosse than successful versions of
"Cabaret"-they're both artists from outside the movie world interested
in chance-taking, trying to slice a fresh, vigorous visual vocabulary,
while paying attention to the nuance fine actors can make of even
on-the-nose dialogue. The words are rich with life because of Mendes'
fine direction of gifted actors. Jane is horrified to find her father
pie-eyed over Angela, and even more nauseated that Angela flirts back.
(Check Spacey's irrepressible leer as he tries merely to smile at
Angela.) Angela's fear is the same of everyone in the film's physical
and narrative cul-de-sacs: "Because there's nothing worse in life than
Satire, as it has been said, is what closes on Saturday night, but there
are other canny elements, such as a motif of rose petals appearing in
modestly surreal ways in Lester's reveries, a repeated touch like
Forrest Gump's free-floating signifier, its high-flying feather.
DreamWorks bought veteran sitcom writer ("Cybill") Ball's script, and
made it for a low studio price (under $15 million by most reports). It
follows the recent model for smart, indie-style films being produced by
studios. Get terrific actors to work for little money on smart material,
as with "Election," "Go" or any of Miramax projects. It may be
DreamWorks' Oscar bid this year, and it'll be interesting to see if they
do an all-stops-pulled-out Weinstein-style campaign for this hilarious,
oft-bizarre, tender yet brittle social satire. A stellar Thomas Newman
score-audibly the work of the composer of "Meet Joe Black" and "Oscar
and Lucinda" is added ear candy, lightly underlining the emotions in his
customary spare, jangly style. A closing credit nods toward Mendes'
collaborator on "The Blue Room" (and her mate)-a thanks to Stanley
Kubrick's very own "Dr. Bill and Alice."
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for
Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies for many other publications,
including Playboy Online.]