DAZZLING 'BEAUTY'; Wicked and witty, toxic and human, this emotional thrill ride crackles with tension and startling performances by a skilled cast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A tightly coiled rage seethes beneath the pretty surface of "American Beauty," a wickedly funny black comedy directed by newcomer Sam Mendes.

Although it's difficult to believe that humor can be found in this toxic portrait of superficial suburban values, predatory sexuality and domestic violence, rest assured it earns its laughs at every turn, thanks in large part to a remarkably nuanced performance by Kevin Spacey.

What's more, "American Beauty" possesses that rarity among movies that amuse by skewering middle-class sensibilities: a powerful moral center whose final, full expression represents one of the most breathtaking moments on screen this year.

In fact, "American Beauty" may not be correctly termed a black comedy at all. Nor is it a domestic drama, although it certainly has elements of both genres. Rather, it's a thrill ride on a par with the most adrenal summer blockbuster. Only here, the explosions are all emotional, as the movie takes film goers on a pinball-like journey from one potent reaction to another.

Most of those reactions center on Lester Burnham (Spacey), whom we meet in a "Sunset Boulevard"-like introduction in which he announces he's 42, lives on an attractive street in a good neighborhood, has a beautiful wife and daughter, and within a year he'll be dead. A preamble suggests the events that will lead to his untimely demise, but very little is what it seems in a world in which projecting the right image is all.

After his deadpan introduction, Burnham shows us the days and nights that precede his death. We see his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), a driven real estate agent whose dedication to preserving appearances approaches white-knuckled desperation, and we meet their daughter Jane (Thora Birch), a sullen teen-ager who sulks through the house like a brooding, wounded animal.

Lester's family life is a shambles, but the pivotal event in his soon-to-be-ended life is his introduction to Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), Jane's sexually precocious best friend. If that last name rings a bell, it's no accident. Like Delores Haze in "Lolita," Angela has a catalytic effect on Lester, who becomes as besotted as a schoolboy. He also begins to make some major changes in his life, which account for the film's most painfully amusing scenes.

Lester's transformation sends Carolyn and Jane on their own journeys of self-discovery. In Jane's case, that involves the Burnhams' new next-door neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the 18-year-old son of an abusive Marine captain played with sinewy toughness by Chris Cooper. Ricky likes Jane -- he thinks she's more interesting than the prosaically blond Angela -- and he's taken to filming her with a digital camera whenever he can.

Is Ricky's voyeuristic hobby a dangerous predilection or simple curiosity? Is Lester a pedophile or, as he puts it, "just an ordinary man with nothing to lose"? "American Beauty" is suffused with a palpable sense of danger, keeping filmgoers unsettled until the very end as to what exactly motivates these complicated characters. And no punches are pulled when they're at their worst: Ricky's father's violent outbursts are sickening in their suddenness and brutality, and Lester's lust is repulsive even at its most pathetically funny.

But the movie never loses sight of the humanity behind even the most reprehensible acts. It's a balancing act pulled off with unusual intelligence by Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball, who have inspired these accomplished actors to give the performances of their lives.

Heretofore consigned to supporting roles, albeit critical ones, Spacey commands the screen with a performance of subtlety, vulnerability and supreme confidence, in which he expresses mordant self-mockery and poignance in a single gesture. Evoking Jack Lemmon at his most un-mannered, Spacey brings flawless comic timing to Lester's self-absorbed, infantile and rapacious behavior. (His smirking style is just right for Lester's snarky outbursts.) But he also holds on to the pathos of Lester's rage, turning what looks like just another midlife crisis into a rebirth, in which something long dormant flutters tentatively to life.

Spacey might carry "American Beauty" (on nicely buffed shoulders, it bears adding), but filmgoers shouldn't ignore some equally potent performances: Bening's breakdown in an empty house is a heart-stopping aria of despair, self-loathing and taut control. And all three teen players -- especially the ethereal-looking Bentley, who delivers the movie's central message with touching gentleness -- give sturdy and courageous portrayals in roles that would daunt actors twice their ages.

Director of photography Conrad Hall has photographed the Burnhams' world to exploit its surface shine, while Thomas Newman's score underlines its slightly surreal undertones. Production designer Naomi Shohan has done a witty job with the color red, whose almost decadent vibrancy is repeated throughout "American Beauty," from Carolyn's prized roses and Angela's mouth to a vintage Pontiac Firebird and a poetically still pool of blood.

Masterfully calibrating all of these elements, as well as coaxing out the most human and fully realized performance of Spacey's career, Mendes has created a movie that will endure. Unlike similarly themed films like "Happiness" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," "American Beauty" doesn't rely on just shock value to wow audiences. The shocks here all transpire on the level of the human heart, where the ability to be astonished will never wear thin, a fact "American Beauty" proves with uncommon assurance, grace and compassion.

'American Beauty'

Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari

Directed by Sam Mendes

Rated R (strong sexuality, language, violence, drug content)

Running time 115 minutes

Released by Dreamworks Pictures

Sun score****

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