Outside of Steven Spielberg's fantastical vision, suburbia usually serves as a dumping ground for filmmakers who spurn either its neat, flawlessly manicured lawns (Blue Velvet, Edward Scissorhands) or its overdeveloped, decaying grotesquerie (Happiness, Gummo, SubUrbia). Since Sam Mendes' American Beauty takes satirical shots in both directions, the blunt irony of its title is entirely expected, but more surprising and revelatory are those fleeting moments when the film takes beauty seriously and finds it in unexpected places. In a nod to Sunset Boulevard, Kevin Spacey narrates from the hereafter, describing in hilarious deadpan the dreary suburban rituals that serve as a "commercial for how normal we are." Flashing back to a year before his murder, Spacey laments his faceless job as an ad-copy writer, his horrible marriage to brittle real-estate agent Annette Bening, and his fantasies about goth daughter Thora Birch's underage friend (Mena Suvari). The early scenes in American Beauty crackle with tension, as the manners and behavioral codes that govern this family's life begin to crumble from the pressure of their bottled-up frustration and denial. Each retreats to different avenues: Spacey quits and tries to relive his glory days as a careless, wasted teenager, Bening pursues an affair with smug "king of real estate" Peter Gallagher, and Birch takes an interest in next-door neighbor Wes Bentley, a voyeuristic misfit obsessed with his video camera. American Beauty levels the usual broadsides at rotting social institutions—the marital spats between Spacey and Bening seem based on lost pages from Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?—but it's Bentley's disquieting video footage that lends the film its humane, mesmerizingly sad tone. Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball, both making their feature debuts, resort to a few heavy-handed tactics to get their points across, but their sheer audacity is so exhilarating it hardly matters. American Beauty circles around its titular subject and reimagines it in funny, touching, and startlingly original ways.
More from The A.V. Club