Rated R - Running Time: 2:01 - Released 10/1/99

It seems that failing marriages have been a popular theme in films lately. Eyes Wide Shut was sexy. The Astronaut's Wife was spooky. Double Jeopardy was nasty; The Story Of Us was depressing. But American Beauty encompasses all of those qualities combined, plus it's the funniest film about marital dysfunction I've seen since The Ref. In that film, Kevin Spacey played a man who had lost his sexual desire for his wife. In American Beauty, written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes (a promising debut for both), Spacey is on the opposite side of the unrequited passion, but he's just as excellent.

We learn early on in American Beauty that 42-year-old Lester Burnham (Spacey) is going to die. He announces that in his opening narration. But the way he describes his marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), one wonders if he really has that much to live for. Carolyn is an ambitious real estate agent (is there any other kind?) who is so concerned with appearances that the pruning shears she uses to manicure her roses actually match her gardening clogs. Despite the fact that she never wants to touch Lester, she implores him to "pretend that we're happy." As if Carolyn's indifference isn't enough, the couple's daughter Jane (Thora Birch) openly refers to her father as a "lame-o." And to top it all off, Lester goes to work to find that the company where he's been working for 14 years has hired a man named Brad to assess each employee's work, so the management can make some cutbacks.

But Lester's pointless, sexually frustrated life changes when he goes to see Jane in a cheerleading routine at her high school's basketball game. Dancing alongside Jane is her friend Angela (Mena Suvari, American Pie), a sexy teenage vixen who captures Lester's fantasy life like a wild animal pounces on its prey. When he hears that Angela likes muscular men, he begins a workout program to build his flabby body into a sex machine. As his stamina increases, and as Angela becomes more and more flirtatious, he adopts a cavalier attitude, telling Brad, Carolyn, and everyone else who bothers him to basically go to hell. But Lester's not the only one in the marriage with a wandering eye. Carolyn has begun to fall for a competitor, a wealthy real estate agent (Peter Gallagher) who represents the model of success — a sharp contrast to her own loser husband.

As the Burnhams' story is unfolding, we meet their new neighbors, who seem to have a "keep up with the Joneses" attitude about family problems. Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a new classmate of Jane's, has a habit of stalking and videotaping things he thinks represent the beauty of nature (of which she is one). His father, retired Marine Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper, October Sky), is a straight-laced conservative jarhead to the nth degree. And the mother, Barbara (Allison Janney), spends her time staring glassily off into space. Ricky's appearance is really the catalyst for change in this film; his relationship with the Burnhams leads to life-altering consequences for just about everyone in both houses.

American Beauty is not your average murder comedy. Director Mendes combines hilarious comic elements with seriously dark undertones. It is a veritable cornucopia of psychological disorders and uncomfortable moments, punctuated effectively with an innovative musical score by Thomas Newman. When the film nears its climax, as with any good mystery, there are at least three possible candidates for Lester's killer. Not all the actors perform perfectly on their marks, but Spacey's style and delivery save the film time after time. ****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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