Superlatively well-made, Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" finally comes out and says, once and for all, what has needed to be said for a long, long time: that the so-called American Dream is really an ugly American Nightmare. Symbolises True, this is not exactly a revelation. Movies have tackled this theme, and with some dexterity, for years. Mike Nichols did it in "The Graduate" in 1967; Ang Lee and Todd Solondz had their respective says in "The Ice Storm" (1997) and "Happiness" (1998), and earlier this year Alexander Payne delivered the clever "Election." So we're on familiar turf with this latest indictment of suburbia, its mania for magazine-ad appearances and the lousy values resorted to in order to attain that kind of dubious perfection.
We've seen it all before, but not with so much originality or acerbic, urbane wit. Mendes, the legendary British stage director (his credits include the recent revival of "Cabaret" and Nicole Kidman's "The Blue Room"), and scenarist Alan Ball, succeed in giving the material a fresh spin by coming up with a shared vision and sticking to it.
Their movie speaks with one voice. Mendes has blended his own with Ball's and the resulting words, laced with cruel, comic glibness, come out of their lead character, the very unhappy Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a man written off as a loser by both his wife and their daughter.
Mendes and Ball (a former playwright and TV writer), both making their film debuts, get everything right about Lester's life, beginning with his opening narration. "This is my neighborhood," Lester informs us, sounding half-dead, "this is my street, this is my life." Then he shocks us: "I'm 42 years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead. In a way, I'm already dead." The film that...