In 1986, I sat in the third row for a performance of LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT on Broadway. The marquee star was Jack Lemmon, but it was the young actor portraying Jamie, the eldest son, who stole the show. He was a little known New Jersey-born (and we all know the coolest people hail from Jersey*) New York Shakespeare Festival actor named Kevin Spacey. I just knew that this actor was destined to do Great Things.
And a Great Thing he has done in first-time director Sam Mendes' remarkable AMERICAN BEAUTY. Even after allowing for the Kevin Spacey Rule ("I'll Sit Through Anything With Kevin Spacey In It"), this is THE male performance of the year. Haley Joel Osment may be astonishing in THE SIXTH SENSE, but note to MPAA: Can't you just give Spacey his statue now and save us all a lot of bleary eyes next March?
Spacey is Lester Burnham, a man in the deepest throes of midlife crisis. Trapped in a job he hates and in a marriage that is no longer fulfilling, he has an epiphany while watching his daughter trudge glumly through a cheerleading routine -- in the voluptuous form of Angela (Mena Suvari), the eponymous "American beauty" and one of said daughter's fellow cheerleaders. Seized by lust for this juicy young thing (and why do all these male fantasy objects have those pouty lips that make them look, in the words of R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET, as if they could "suck a golf ball through a garden hose"), Lester decides to make changes to his life. This infuriates his obsessive compulsive real estate agent wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), who turns up the volume on her already shrill harpiness.
Meanwhile, Lester's daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is convinced (not wrongly) that her parents are hopeless idiots. Alienated from her parents, and equally trapped in a less-than-warm friendship with the sexpot Angela, she ultimately responds warmly to the attentions of neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Ricky is an odd bird, all right. He "dresses like a Bible salesmen", as Angela so cogently notes. Legend has it that he spent two years in a mental hospital. But Ricky has a pair of absolutely KILLER baby-blue peepers, and soon he seems like the only sane person in the neighborhood.
Ricky is in his own way as complex as Lester. His father (Chris Cooper) is a retired Marine colonel who requires him to submit to urine tests every six months and his mother (Allison Janney) is nearly catatonic. Meanwhile, Ricky has a thriving marijuana business (and acquires Lester as a customer) while videotaping everything he sees, finding beauty in the mundane, the ugly, and the tragic. A plastic bag blowing in the wind fills him with rapture. A dead homeless person has a tragic beauty.
The lives of these characters intersect in a series of twists, turns, and misunderstandings, chugging inexorably towards a completely unexpected, yet strangely satisfying ending.
AMERICAN BEAUTY is that rare film that combines interesting filmmaking, a nearly flawless script, and uniformly expert performances. It is Spacey's film, from beginning to end. In many ways, Lester Burnham's life mirrors that of Lloyd Chasseur, the beaten-down husband Spacey played so expertly in Ted Demme's 1994 Denis Leary vehicle THE REF; with Bening's Carolyn the soul sister of Judy Davis' Caroline (are the similarities in the characters' names between the two films a coincidence? I wonder). Yet screenwriter Alan Ball imbues Lester with far more subtlety, ultimately liberating Lester's spirit in a completely unexpected way. Lester is mean-spirited, spiteful, witty, sexy, and disgustingly pathetic as he lusts after the vapid pouty-lipped Angela. Spacey wears his soul on his sleeve in this film, and even flirts playfully with his own sexually ambiguous image. He leaves his own definitive stamp on a role that was surely written with him in mind.
It's not easy to steal a scene from Spacey, but newcomer and face-to-watch Wes Bentley as Ricky nearly manages that astonishing feat in a starmaking breakthrough performance. Ricky Fitts is inscrutable, mysterious, innocent yet creepy, and utterly fascinating. Bentley's immobile face, dominated by the aforementioned peepers, is mesmerizing. He is the straight man to Spacey's quipmeister, and his utterly deadpan presence is the revelation of the film.
Annette Bening channels every tightly-wound, sexually frustrated fortyish-actress performance in the last ten years, from Catherine O'Hara in BEETLEJUICE and HOME FRIES, to Judy Davis' performance in anything. It just doesn't seem so long ago that Bening was seducing John Cusack in THE GRIFTERS and vamping Warren Beatty in BUGSY. Less than ten years later, and boom! Bening is now over 40 and therefore must play the harpy. After watching her recently on video on VALMONT, I'm convinced that she is a much better actress than I ever thought, and Carolyn is the archetype of the woman whose life looks wonderful from the outside, for whom appearance is everything, and yet is miserably unhappy. A scene in which she is singlehandedly, and violently, cleaning an abandoned house for sale, chanting "I will sell this house today" like an Emile Coué autosuggestion ritual, is a masterpiece of repressed rage.
Because this is Lester's story, Carolyn is clearly the villain of the piece, and here is the film's only real weakness. All of the other characters have shade and nuance, but Carolyn has no redeeming qualities at all. She is a selfish mother, a frigid, materialistic wife, and an adulterer. Her loveless affair with real estate rival Buddy King (an oily Peter Gallagher) serves in the plot to justify Lester's lust for a high school student. Wouldn't this have been an even more interesting film if we were given a glimpse into Carolyn's mind, to see what in this ghastly marriage might have contributed to her current state? Wouldn't it have been far more convincing for Angela to be as "grossed out" by Lester's drooling attentions than to be equally flirtatious, thus undoubtedly causing the clueless male audience in the West Nyack, NY theatre I attended wondering, "Hmmmm.....maybe MY daughter's friend has the hots for me!" Yeah. And Julia Roberts will walk into your bookstore and fall in love with you. Right-o.
As for the kids, clearly Wes Bentley stands out. Yet Thora Birch as Jane (in the cynical, smartassed Christina Ricci role) more than holds her own. In the second half of the film, where we see Jane mostly through the eyes of the adoring Ricky, Lester's infatuation for Angela, a plasticized, cosmeticized sexpot, seems even more pathetic by comparison. Clearly, Ricky is the truly adult male in this story. Through his eyes, we see Jane as more than just a chubby-faced sullen teenager; we see the astoundingly beautiful young woman that Jane can't believe she is, living as she does in her teenaged universe.
Mena Suvari is serviceable enough as Angela, who is also not what she seems. Yet even the scenes in which she appears as Lester's fantasy figure, swathed in rose petals, there's something cold, antiseptic, and, well, unsexy about her. Suvari does an admirable job of showing the empty and insecure little girl lurking underneath the sex-talking, blonde, pouty exterior, though it seemed as if this nuance went right over the heads of the audience at the showing I attended.
The other notable performance is by Chris Cooper (THE HORSE WHISPERER) as Ricky's father. An overly disciplined, reactionary, rigid, paranoid career military man who is one part Boomhauer from the KING OF THE HILL television show and one part John Savage's irredeemably nutty Ray West in LITTLE BOY BLUE, Col. Fitts could easily have been as cartoonish as Bening's Carolyn. Yet Cooper manages to quietly show us the frightened man underneath the easy-to-hate exterior.
Cameos by Scott Bakula and Sam Robards as nauseatingly domestic gay partners round out the supporting cast.
The broad brush with which Bening's character is drawn and the moral ambiguity surrounding Lester's proclivities notwithstanding, at just over two hours, AMERICAN BEAUTY is perhaps the most tightly-written, cleanly-edited film of the year. What a joy to find dialogue this crisp, a plot this original, and characters this complex portrayed by fine actors, and all in a single motion picture.
*Danny DeVito (Neptune), Janeane Garofalo (Newton), Dizzy Gillespie (Englewood), Allen Ginsberg (Newark), Savion Glover (Newark), Debbie Harry (Hawthorne), Linda Hunt (Morristown), Frank Langella (Bayonne), Queen Latifah (Newark), Robert Sean Leonard (Westwood), Jack Nicholson (Neptune), Dorothy Parker (West End), Joe Pesci (Newark), Paul Robeson (Princeton), Paul Rudd (Passaic), Wayne Shorter (Newark), Paul Simon (Newark), Ruth St. Denis (Newark), Jon Stewart (Trenton), Meryl Streep (Summit), Albert Payson Terhune (Newark), Sarah Vaughan (Newark), "Uncle" Floyd Vivino (Paterson), Jack Warden (Newark), Flip Wilson (Jersey City), Alexander Woolcott (Phalanx), Robert Wuhl (Union City), and that guy Springsteen.
And oh yeah...that Sinatra fellow.
On the other hand, New Jersey also is responsible for Greg Evigan (South Amboy), Michael Douglas (New Brunswick), Whitney Houston (East Orange), Jerry Lewis (Newark), Jay Mohr (Verona), Joe Piscopo (Passaic), Dick Vitale (East Rutherford), Pia Zadora (Hoboken), and all of the Travoltas (Englewood), but you've got to take the bad with the good, I guess.