I don't use the word beauty that often because I don't need it as much as, say, hot, slutty, hardcore or nasty. To me, beauty is usually something the museum crowd loves to throw around to describe shit I just don't get. But I got "American Beauty" and I understood the title: it's accessible to even the dirty, uneducated masses like me. I doubt I can capture this near-masterpiece in words, but I'll see what my filthy little brain can do.
Kevin Spacey tells the story from beyond the grave. He is a middle-class suburban husband and father going through the motions of his dull, middle-class life. We know that by the end of the story he will be dead. The highlight of Spacey's day is something many can relate to: jacking off in the shower. His wife, Annette Bening, is an overreaching real-estate agent bitch. She's one of those realty assholes who plaster pictures of themselves on benches and notepads because they have no idea how greedy, scary and phony they look. Their daughter, Thora Birch, is a teenager who doesn't understand them, and doesn't want to.
Spacey hates his job and his life, but discovers he absolutely loves his daughters juicy little friend, the eminently fuckable Mena Suvari. He repeatedly fantasizes of sliding his middle-aged hambone into her velvet tunnel. In Suvari, he sees what he long ago gave up on, and that is a reason to live. So, he begins to reshape himself into something better, something that a slutty teen would like to ride like a carousel pony. He quits his fancy job, betters himself by physically reworking his body and mentally unloading all the baggage that the suburbs have packed on. He buys a cherry 1970 Firebird, smokes a shitload of dope and says exactly what's on his mind. Meanwhile, Suvari does little to discourage his creepy fantasies.
His daughter Birch has discovered the weird boy next door, Wes Bentley, a voyeur-supreme who videotapes everything in his search for beauty. His father is a retired Marine Colonel, Chris Cooper, who has a piece of Nazi china and can't stop referring to himself as a colonel. Bentley supplies Spacey with his dope, but Cooper mistakenly thinks they are having an affair and beats the shit out of his son. Bening, meanwhile, is having an affair with the bushy-browed Peter Gallagher, the self-proclaimed real estate king and her idol.
On a rainy night, everyone's frustration and misery boils over. Spacey is about to complete his transformation from loser to teen sex idol by giving Suvari a screwing. Bening is dumped by Gallagher after they are caught by Spacey, and she intends to get even with her husband. After having the crap beat out of him by his father, Bentley decides to leave home and take Birch with him. And Cooper is rebuffed in his advances toward Spacey. In the midst of the ensuing violence and confusion, Spacey finally and momentarily sees the beauty that he, and we, thought was lost.
As an audience, we're turned around. I went into "American Beauty" expecting the same-old satire of suburban life, nailing the same old targets. I expected the Hollywood goat-cheese-eaters to say that people in the suburbs are boring, conservative and only care about property values, because Hollywood loves saying they're better than the rest of us. "American Beauty" plays to this expectation, making the suburbs a sad and lonely place, and then it turns around and shows us, in one instant, an unbelievable beauty and contentment. It reminded me of "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads, where David Byrne has the balls to suggest that being normal can be wonderful. The final moments of "American Beauty" show normalcy with such beauty that they made even an ignorant pervert like me get a bit misty. Hell, after seeing shit like "Mumford" and "Outside Providence," I forgot that movies could even get beneath the surface and actually affect me.
Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball do what that dope Lawrence Kasdan sucked so badly at in "Mumford." They define the characters as real people without wacky traits, and then they draw the humor out of the desperation of their normalcy. By contrast, Kasdan created "wacky" characters based on the jokes he wanted to milk out of them, and the results were obvious, unbelievable characters that never got more than skin-deep.
Kevin Spacey is so human that we understand the shit he's going through and we actually hope for him to improve. Jesus, I didn't even want him to fuck the teeny-bopper, because I wanted to see him as a better person. And Lord knows I like to watch a good teen screwing, perhaps even more than the average person or priest. When he quits his job and seeks out something with the least possible responsibility, I completely understood. Although, for me, I would have to get paid to sit around watching the Playboy channel with my hand down my pants to have less responsibility than I do at the Ralston Amoco. (I used to have more, but that was before I accidentally set a kid's bike on fire.)
Wes Bentley is fantastic as the voyeur son of the colonel. One scene, where his father beats the shit out of him for breaking into his curio cabinet has the same sort of queasy tension as the movie "The Great Santini," and Bentley doesn't play it for sympathy. He plays it head-on, still worshipping his son-of-a-bitch father.
The flaws of this movie are almost completely made up for the heartbreakingly beautiful ending. But, after I thought about it, I noticed that many of its plot points turn on sitcom-like devices. Sure, they are handled more gracefully than they would be on "Suddenly Susan," but they still feel a little easy for such a graceful movie to make. Some examples: the hot slut teen who'll screw anything that moves turns out to be a virgin, Spacey catches his wife cheating while working the drive-thru window of a fast food restaurant, and the father who mistakenly thinks his son is having gay sex is misled by "Three's Company" style switcheroos.
Also, despite the movie's insistence that there is more to the suburbs than people often assume, it never lets some characters rise above the stereotype. Annette Bening's real-estate mom is never more than shrill and shallow. The Colonel's wife is shell-shocked beyond believable terms by her husband's abuse, and Peter Gallagher never suggests anything more than the typical sleazy real-estate agent. Although, his eyebrows are worth about a dollar of the ticket price in themselves.
A strong four fingers for "American Beauty," the first film to suggest that us folks in the suburbs are worth considering as human beings.