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At the Movies: ‘American Beauty’

September 15, 1999

Now and then _ far too infrequently _ a film comes along that offers a sliver of legitimate wisdom about the condition of the family in 20th-century America.

Robert Redford’s ``Ordinary People″ (1980) did it. So did Ang Lee’s ``The Ice Storm″ (1997). Now, director Sam Mendes’ ``American Beauty″ takes its place among the best family dramas of recent decades.

Subtle and harrowing, full of cockeyed humor and visceral pain, ``American Beauty″ explores a modern family _ what makes it tick, and how each tick can herald the existence of a time bomb moving inexorably toward detonation.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), writer for a booster-oriented ad magazine, is coping with early middle age. A comfortable, suburban life has left him self-indulgent and a bit disoriented.

``I know I’ve lost something,″ he says, ``but I don’t know what it is.″

His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is insolent and self-pitying, driven inside her frosty shell by years of rising anger at her husband and her lot. A real-estate agent who dresses and furnishes like a bon vivant, she nonetheless is so emotionally eviscerated that, when she cries, she simultaneously upbraids herself for doing so.

Their high-school-age daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is hovering near the junction of adulthood and troubled teen _ certain she’s ugly, thoroughly disgusted at her parents’ suburban artificiality.

Add a cryptic boy who lives next door named Ricky (Wes Bentley) and his strange parents, throw in a teen-age Lolita named Angela (Mena Suvari) and you have a potboiler that could go any direction.

And it does.

Lester encounters Angela, Jane’s cheerleading buddy, and falls immediately and obviously in lust with her, much to his daughter’s disgust. Jane catches Ricky watching her and is both repelled and fascinated. Carolyn flirts with her competitor (Peter Gallagher, at his oiliest). Ricky’s Marine Corps father grapples with the presence of a gay couple in the neighborhood. Illicit lusts blossom.

If all this seems dizzying and disjointed, that’s sort of the point. What unifies it all is Lester, who is either falling apart or finally waking up. His attraction for Angela and the confusion it produces sends him on a journey of self-destruction and discovery.

He molts convulsively from a randy Walter Mitty into some sort of rampaging suburban John Belushi, energized by the very things that should hurt him, watching his life unravel even as it becomes enjoyable again.

As matters hurtle toward their conclusions, it is Lester who _ with both his vices and his formidable attempts at being honorable _ pushes them along.

Spacey’s Lester is a wonderful, terrible junk pile of whimsy and rage, self-doubt and resurgent hormones. And Bening, who deserved a break after an unintelligible script scuttled her fine work in January’s ``In Dreams,″ gives a career performance here.

Birch, whose emotions bubble quietly and sear viciously, plays Jane just right _ an adolescent struggling between wanting to love her parents and seeing their blemishes in stark relief, as only an offspring can.

Chris Cooper and Allison Janney are just as spellbinding as next-door neighbors Col. Frank and Barbara Fitts. He is a barking, sinewy disciplinarian who’d just as soon bloody his own son as face up to his failings; her years of obedience have left her one tiny notch away from catatonia. And both Bentley and Suvari give performances of astonishing depth that are beyond their years.

As haunting piano and strings push this misfit block party to its agonizing climax, you know what’s ahead, because Lester’s narration told you at the beginning: He is going to die. Things will implode. But in what manner?

Ultimately, Lester’s end comes at his moment of redemption, and it resonates with quiet irony. His liberation becomes his undoing, but not before he has emerged as the kindest, most stouthearted person in a confused lot of misdirected souls.

What makes the film such a desolate snapshot of American life is the normalcy of its dysfunction: Everybody’s horrible and everybody’s normal. ``American Beauty″ is American tragedy. In it, we can recognize ourselves. And the mirror is not only cracked; it’s shattered and cannot be fixed.

``American Beauty,″ a Dreamworks release, is written by Alan Ball and produced by Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. It is rated R.

___

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.