Do we need another movie to teach us that the typical nuclear family is dysfunctional to the point of hysteria? On paper, probably not. On the screen, however, "American Beauty" grows tall and true, blossoming into an affecting ensemble portrait of the flowers in the suburban dustbin.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a magazine writer whose job is going to hell as fast as his loveless marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), an inhumanly frigid real-estate agent. They have a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), a bored, bitchy teen who considers both of her parents to be beneath contempt. Jane is the personal obsession of Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a creepy new neighbor whose habit of spying on her with a video camera is merely a sideline to his lucrative pot-selling business. (He's also done some time in a mental hospital.)
Jane's friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) can't understand why Ricky's lens isn't trained on her instead. After all, every man she meets -- she's simply sure of it -- wants to get her nubile body into bed. But if Ricky isn't interested, there's always Lester, who falls deeply in lust with his daughter's gal-pal the minute he sets eyes on her ... a fixation the eager Lolita is all too happy to feed with exploratory bedroom glances.
Wringing comedy from pedophilia is a touchy proposition, but "American Beauty" is mostly free of the sleaziness that marred this year's frankly troubling Election. In that film, the hunger for young flesh was presented as an unwise but ultimately excusable manifestation of adult male frustration. What's a guy supposed to do when his wife won't touch him and a pubescent temptress keeps flashing her charms in his face?
"American Beauty" bypasses that dangerous ground, partially because the twisted courtship is one thread in an all-encompassing tapestry of social sickness, and largely because Lester isn't presented as a pitiable victim of his own life. His less-than-ideal circumstances, the script posits, are exactly what he deserves: He's a lazy, directionless man-child who'd rather stay at home watching the umpteenth James Bond marathon on the TNT network than attend one of his own offspring's school functions.
Spacey grounds the character in a witty weariness that's reminiscent of an Albert Brooks antihero, then adds a layer of sarcastic fury that surfaces whenever Lester's self-pity reaches the boiling point. He's as righteously indignant as a dead man can be.
Bening's Carolyn is the perfect nightmare mate, a stiff-as-starch phony who's consumed by appearances. Overseeing an immaculate household and earning a healthy income are her chosen substitutes for exhibiting any honest emotions whatsoever. When the picket-fence facade becomes too difficult to sustain, she slaps herself in the face over and over again to stop her tears from flowing. Bening must be convinced of husband Warren Beatty's potential as a presidential candidate; she already appears to be in intensive training for the role of first lady.
Two hours of such well-tuned pessimism would be enough to qualify "American Beauty" as a memorable cornucopia of laughs and shudders. But the film has loftier aims in mind, gradually evolving into a softer, compassionate exploration of the rules and roles that prevent the members of the upper-middle class from finding joy in being alive.
The more we know of them, the harder these folks are to dismiss: Ricky isn't nearly as eccentric as we were first led to believe, Angela harbors serious insecurities behind her bluster, and Lester is blindly fumbling toward something more transcendent than a simple rest from responsibility. What were thorns are now petals; as it opens to the light, this cinematic rose is truly the one to pick.