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Friday, September 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Beauty' Runs Deep -- Let's See, There's A Terrific Script, Assured Direction And A Virtuoso Turn From Kevin Spacey. You Want Fries With That?

Seattle Times Movie Reviewer

Movie review XXXX "American Beauty," with Kevin Spacey, Wes Bentley, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney. Directed by Sam Mendes, from a script by Alan Ball. 115 minutes. Guild 45th, Pacific Place. "R" - Restricted because of strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content.

Praised to the heavens as the late-1990s answer to Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," this remarkable new comedy-drama actually demonstrates more compassion for the older generation than Nichols did. It's as if Mrs. Robinson had acquired a soul and decided to narrate the story herself.

While Mrs. Robinson was the most jaded character in "The Graduate," her counterpart in "American Beauty" is a middle-aged burnout, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), whose idea of rejuvenating his life is to have an affair with a teenage cheerleader, Angela (Mena Suvari).

Angela happens to be the close friend of his alienated daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who is so repulsed by her dad's hormonal attraction to Angela that the affair doesn't get far. Still, there's suddenly something different about Lester, who quits his soul-destroying job, blackmails his employer, tells off his materialistic wife (Annette Bening), starts working out in his garage, gets a job at a burger stand and hangs out with Ricky (Wes Bentley), the strange, self-possessed teenager who has just moved in next door.

Sam Mendes, the veteran stage director ("Cabaret," "The Blue Room") who is making his film debut with "American Beauty," handles it all with the undaunted assurance and sharp sense of style that Nichols brought to his first movies. Alan Ball's script is a terrific piece of material, and Mendes responds directly to its subversive, provocative vision of a curdled American Dream.

So do his actors, especially Bentley, who meticulously explores the full range of Ricky's craftiness and spirituality, and Spacey, who lately has had one career-topping role after another - and now tops them all with this perfectly timed, effortlessly droll performance.

As his clueless, real-estate-obsessed wife, Bening is a hilarious caricature for most of the film, jumping into a cartoonish affair with her chief business rival (Peter Gallagher). But she also reveals the character's true confusion in the final scenes. Suvari does a lovely job of revealing Angela's attraction to Lester, while Birch suggests Jane's equally gradual change of feeling: from disgusted to jealous.

Occasionally the script flirts with inverted cliches that are threatening to become cliche. The welcoming gay men (Scott Bakula, Sam Robards) next door turn out to be the happiest couple in town. The most homophobic character in the movie reveals serious gender-identification problems of his own. A pot-smoking, dope-dealing teenager, who perceives a more coherent world beyond this suburban nightmare, communicates the strongest sense of hope.

But Ball spends just as much time demolishing stereotypes. Ricky at first seems a dangerous voyeur, Angela appears to be a promiscuous sexpot, and Ricky's parents, a retired Marine (Chris Cooper) and his quiet wife (Allison Janney), seem so shellshocked they're incapable of feeling.

Nothing is ever quite as it seems here. That extends to every shift in tone, whether it's suggested in Conrad Hall's wide-screen cinematography, Thomas Newman's score or Spacey's narration, which tells us at the outset that Lester, our hero for the next two hours, is already dead.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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