Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) hates his job and the cubicle to which it confines him. He has also come to despise his tense and frigid wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), to mourn the sullen silence that has descended between him and his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch), to loathe the sterile suburbia where they all try to make emotional ends meet. Lester masturbates a lot, especially when he gets to thinking about his daughter's friend Angela (Mena Suvari), the American Beauty of the title.
Oh, God, not that again. Not another midlife crisis, with its subcurrents of suppressed violence and repressed sexual longing. Not another tale in which we wait patiently or impatiently--depending on our tolerance for cultural cliches--for the cathartic, concluding burst of morally instructive gunfire.
But wait. Sometimes there is salvation in parentheses, especially when they surround the name of Kevin Spacey, giving a truly great performance. He's cynical. He's funny. He's angry. He's rueful. He's a mean truth teller and sometimes a curiously tender one. Best of all, he makes the transitions between these and a dozen other emotions heedlessly, without warning or visible preparation. You never know where he's coming from, or where he's going to end up in a scene. Yet boldly challenging our sympathies, he somehow wins them because, to borrow a phrase, he's a man in full.
He also has a dark and problematical double, the weird, smart boy next door. His name is Ricky (Wes Bentley). He deals drugs underneath the crazy nose of his abusive father (Chris Cooper), a retired Marine colonel of the neo-fascist persuasion, and creepily stalks Lester's daughter with his everpresent camcorder, eventually winning her because of the purity of his subversive nature. He is, perhaps, everything Lester might have been, if he had not long ago compromised himself. This also, perhaps, explains why Jane falls in love with him.
Ricky is a disturbing presence. Prior to Littleton, he might have been dismissed as an improbable one. But that tragedy--created by kids held in contempt by their peers and able to conduct a criminal life free of parental interference--gives him a peculiar, if entirely coincidental, resonance. He is not, in the end, tragedy's primary victim, but he is its precipitator, and the instructor of the complacency that it is the business of this movie to shatter.
Shatter stylishly, one must add. The writing by Alan Ball, whose first produced screenplay this is, consistently surprises--not so much in what it says, but in how it says it. He even risks having his story narrated by Lester from beyond the grave and makes Billy Wilder's old trick seem fresh. And the stage's Sam Mendes, also making his first film, dares a touch of expressionism, which we happily indulge, partly because he knows when to stop, mostly because the energy and conviction he and his cast bring to this movie do not permit second thoughts--at least until you are outside the theater, trying to shake off its mysterious spell.
--By Richard Schickel