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Friday, May 5, 2000

'AMERICAN BEAUTY'

The dark side of a dream


Lester Burnham is a loser. Not only that, but a middle-aged, over-the-hill loser with no personality, a boring corporate McJob, a status-driven wife and a teenage daughter who loathes him. ("What a lame-o. Someone should just put him out of his misery.") His high point each day is jerking off in the shower. Worst of all, Lester is dead, and looking back on this last year of his life in a sardonic voice-over from beyond.

Observing his family life, he acknowledges "They think I'm a loser . . . I have lost something. I've never felt so sedated." But, as he reflects with the wisdom of hindsight, "It's never too late to get it back."

Thus begins "American Beauty," this year's big Oscar winner (Best Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay and Cinematography), as we follow Lester (Kevin Spacey) on his quest to beat the mid-life doldrums.

It doesn't start off as a very noble quest, though. Lester's big motivating factor in rejuvenating himself is that he's looking to shag his daughter Janey's school friend Angela (Mena Suvari), a supple little Lolita with a come-hither look. When he reluctantly attends a cheerleading performance by Janey (Thora Birch) to feign some parental interest, he's immediately transfixed -- slackjawed -- by Angela, whose beauty eclipses all else. Going inside his head, we see Lester's fantasy of Angela, provocatively unbuttoning her blouse to reveal . . . a torrent of red rose petals? It's a nice touch, one of many in this film's curious mixture of lyrical and surreal beauty with corrosive wit.

Later, in a very funny scene, Lester can barely keep from drooling as he goes out of his way to meet Angela. "Any friend of Janey's is a friend of mine," gushes Lester, his true feelings all too apparent (and Spacey's obsequious take on this sort of oyaji will definitely resonate with Japanese audiences).

"Could he be any more pathetic?" frets Janey after Lester has left, but -- in one of the film's many surprising twists -- Angela kind of likes the attention. Sharing a joint with Janey on the ride home, she admits, "I'm used to boys drooling over me. It started when I was 12. I like it. If people I don't even know look at me and want to f*** me, that's great." At least, that's how Angela sees it in her pipe dreams of becoming a super-model.

Think she's messed up? Well, family dysfunction is the order of the day. Lester, looking at Janey, muses that she's "a typical teen; angry, insecure. I wish I could tell her it would all pass -- but I can't lie to her." Lester's real-estate agent wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), obsessed with success, is having a career-enhancing affair with a wealthy realtor. She simultaneously refuses to have sex with Lester, and chides him for masturbating. (To which he replies, with that passively taunting tone that only Kevin Spacey can muster, "Well come on, baby! I'm ready!")

Even worse are the Burnham's neighbors. Retired Marine Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a discipline-obsessed nut case who makes his own son Ricky (Wes Bentley) take urine tests for drug use, oblivious to the fact that Ricky is a major dealer of ganja, selling to Lester as well. Ricky, meanwhile, is furtively filming Janey with his Handicam. Another pervert? Maybe, maybe not.

That's where "American Beauty" really takes off and soars. Reading this synopsis, no doubt you're already drawing the contours of where this film lies, somewhere between the sick, barely repressed desires of David Lynch-land (or "The Jerry Springer Show"), and the familial dysfunction of U.S. TV sitcoms. Probably you've pegged "American Beauty" as a "Lolita" for the '90s -- crasser, bolder, edgier.

But stop right there: While "American Beauty" is certainly a sly satire, it's also one of those rare and delicious films that moves between moods, emotions and styles, able to play it straight, silly, or surreal as the situation demands, and not with ironic detachment, but fully giving in to the essence of each moment. Watching the film, it's a magical experience seeing this emerge, how these characters, stereotypes one and all, become less ridiculous, more complex, more sympathetic, more, well, human.

Take Lester: In his attempts to reconnect with his youth -- working out in the nude, driving around in his freshly bought red Firebird while listening to classic rock, and flipping burgers at the local fast-food joint -- he is still, as Janey pegs him, pathetic. But ever so slowly, as he detaches himself from the unhappy regularity of his life, his spirit begins to return, and we see the glimmer of the guy he used to be. He's still gearing up to land his jailbait in bed but, as some old sage put it, it's not the destination but the journey. Ponder that after you've seen the film.

"It's a great thing when you still have the ability to surprise yourself," muses Lester, and the viewer can only agree. Apparently even the film's director (acclaimed British stage director Sam Mendes, making his cinematic debut) was surprised with how the film turned out. Based on a sharp, inventive script by sitcom writer Alan Ball (Dreamworks honcho Steven Spielberg reportedly forbade any rewrites of it), "American Beauty" was originally intended as a straight-up satire, but as Mendes was editing the film, he found a darker, sadder current.

The film's resulting change in tone is so smooth and swift that we're still laughing by the time we realize we're in for a tragedy and, by the time Mendes hits us with its final, exquisite grace note of an ending, something quite profound. Call it art, or call it comedy -- either way you'll be satisfied.

"American Beauty" is playing at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan and other theaters.


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