American Beauty makes the others look bad. The other films at your local cinema, that is. Impeccable acting is wed to a taut, balanced script whose dark satire enjoys moments of real sincerity and biting humor. It focuses on the suburban Burham family: Lester (Kevin Spacey), the desiccated fortysomething who enters into an exaggerated mid-life crisis; Carolyn (Annette Benning), a woman trying to ignite a zest for life via real estate acumen; and Jane (Thora Birch), their misfit teenage daughter torn between her nubile best friend (Mena Suvari ) and the weird boy next door.
Lester fixates on Janie's cheerleader friend for his sexual-psychic renewal; Carolyn flings with the Real Estate King, and Janie finds what might be real love in the abused boy who views the world through the screen of a digital camera. The choreography with which these couplings come together and are undone is breathtaking. An astute visual intelligence makes the film a formal pleasure to watch, and the ways in which framing is integrated into the plot adds delicious metaphoric meat. Spacey is sure to be lauded, but the entire cast brings forth memorable, complex characters.
In many ways, American Beauty makes the themes of Happiness palatable to a mainstream audience: the pedophilic adult, the disingenuousness of materialistic living, and the simplistic thesis that sexual repression is the symptom and cause for America's well-fed pathologies. It is so powerful, however, in that all the actors manage to draw both compassion and criticism. When Lester hits his Bulworthy self-realization, he merely reverts to swigging beers, smoking pot, and surrounding himself in the accouterments of gassy '70s idealism. It is a hallmark of good acting that the characters move about shallow, shell-like lives while conveying very real sensations of pain and longing.