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Film Review: American Beauty

Like 'The Blair Witch Project', 'American Beauty' comes to these shores on a wave of hype and critical adoration. However, unlike that micro-budget horror hit, 'American Beauty' is not a niche film but a glorious melding of art house and populist filmmaking with intelligence, wit and class, boasting the best ensemble since 'Pulp Fiction'.

Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a burnt out, depressed and frustrated 40 something whose life is slowly destroyed by his inability to feel anything. His marriage to the success orientated basket case Carolyn (Annette Bening) is a sham, whilst his daughter Jane is caught between her shallow friend Angela (Mena Suavari) and the weird but charismatic Ricky (Wes Bently). The multiple plot strands also concern Ricky's relationship with his ex-Marine father and Angela's flirtations with Lester, until the plot moves inexorably towards its tragic, yet cathartic end.

This may sound like a mouthful on paper, but the script by former sitcom writer Alan Ball gives each character its due focus and attention. His writing is eloquent, full of subtext and meaning. Whilst many have criticised the use stereotypical characters, he gives them life and dimension. The script deals with its large and complex themes of aesthetics versus reality, the effect of repressed emotions and differing ways of finding fulfillment with elegant simplicity. It is an arresting debut.

Amazingly, director Sam Mendes is also making his debut. After a string of acclaimed stage work (most notably 'The Blue Room' with Nicole Kidman and the smash revival of 'Cabaret' on Broadway), England-born Mendes makes an astonishingly assured debut, one that even eclipses Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs'. His work on stage has no doubt equipped him with the skill to work with actors, but it is his beautiful visual sense, such as the use of roses as a metaphor for Lester's burgeoning infatuation, that opens up the film. Kudos must also go to veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall for his striking photography.

Because of the basic humanity of the characters, with their faults and prejudices all clearly displayed, it would take some kind of cast to evoke such sympathy from an audience more used to clean-cut good versus evil. Kevin Spacey seems to be making it his life's work to eclipse every one of his performances that has gone before. It is a faultless reading of a man slowly going off the rails before he manages to save himself. Watching him portray Burnham's immaturity, passion and ultimate redemption is a joy. Annette Bening is given the most thankless role of the intractable career woman who refuses to allow her emotions to disrupt her work, but makes it blackly hilarious. There are times when you are not sure whether to cry or to laugh at her, and she evokes sympathy without ever betraying her character.

With the plethora of teen comedies choking the multiplexes, it is refreshing to see three talented young actors with the ability to portray depth. Thora Birch, who began her career as Harrison Ford's daughter in 'Patriot Games', manages to keep her sullen teen eminently believable and empathetic whilst subtly showing her character's retreat from bored cynicism. Wes Bently gives Ricky a charming combination of sweetness and dignity that suggest that a long career in films may be his for the taking. Mena Suvari is stuck with the most stereotyped role as the hormonally charged Angela, but transforms before our eyes into a pitiful little girl whose bitchy exterior is little more than a veil to cover her own doubts and fears.

Perfection. This film is summed up by that one word. Be thankful that 6 weeks into the Millennium, we already have our first masterpiece. Do yourself a favour and savour this most rare of specimens - an American film that can successfully mix satire with humanity.

Ian O'Sullivan

(bullet) 'American Beauty' went on General Release in Ireland on Feb. 4th 2000

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