American Beauty has already been compared, rather unfairly, to Todd Solondz’s Happiness. True, both are dark, domestic comedies and both suggest that something is rotten and wrong in the Soul of America. But American Beauty is a sweeter film and hints that there’s real love and affection out there in the suburban wasteland. Director Sam Mendes wants to find the redemption amongst the surreal gags of Alan Ball’s very funny screenplay. Indeed, American Beauty’s cast of suburban grotesques keeps revealing new layers of humanity, right up to its bizarre, sad and very moving climax.American Beauty starts off as a Male Mid Life Crisis movie; Lester (Kevin Spacey in his most natural performance to date) has a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) who hates him; a wife who mocks him; and a life as a journalist that grinds him down. He can’t get it up for his wife, but when he meets Angela (the wonderful Mena Suvari), a teen beauty and his daughter’s “tarty” best friend, the blood seems to get through to Lester’s head again. But Lester’s story is American Beauty’s starting off point; the movie charts the progress of the Family, who turn out to be as twisted and agonised as Lester. Particularly weird is Jane’s “relationship” with Ricky (Wes Bentley), her voyeuristic neighbour.
Instead of seeming sleazy, predictable or over-ripe, American Beauty makes Lester’s quest seem real, simply because it makes plain that all he’s trying to do is “live again”. Of course, the reality (and the responsibility) of just where Lester’s directing his energies comes crashing down in the third act, spiking the amoral ambience of what’s come before, and lending the film a kind of moral certitude that makes it look a little frightened - and a little conventional.Still, as long as Mendes plays in the margins, American Beauty is brilliant - even the movie’s tendency to overstate and play the gag is forgivable. At least in the laughter there’s a truth there ready to choke it off. ---Peter Galvin