See-through cinema

In Sam Mendes' hands, film is a window rather than a picture. Watch carefully.

DURING ONE OF many darkly comic scenes in the new film American Beauty, a teenage boy gives head to a middle-aged man in his suburban basement. Or at least that’s what it looks like to the boy’s father, an ex-Marine on a reconnaissance mission at his son’s bedroom window. What the boy is actually doing is rolling a joint, and if his dad could see the whole picture, the story might dissolve into a heart-tugging comedy instead of the slapstick tragedy it turns out to be. But, hey, that’s a risk you take when you live in the suburbs.

American Beauty

opens September 23 at Guild 45th, Pacific Place

This interlude tidily encapsulates the subtext of Sam Mendes’ debut feature: the disconnect between reality and what we see (or choose to see). It’s a theme that’s ideally suited to the medium of film, where the director is a capricious god, revealing at his own pace what he wants his subjects—the audience—to know.

What Mendes first doles out to us is Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a 42-year-old suburbanite trapped in a spoiled marriage, toiling at a job he’s ashamed of, trying to pinpoint just when his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) began to loathe him. Lester’s comatose spirit stirs when he sees Jane’s nubile blond classmate Angela (Mena Suvari) in her cheerleader togs. It leaps awake for good the night he meets his new neighbor, 18-year-old Ricky (Wes Bentley), a pot dealer with surplus reserves of confidence. Lester has found his personal hero, and he proceeds to rearrange his life with the zeal of a born-again Christian. He not only quits his job, he gets a new one at the drive-through window of a fast-food joint. He buys the 1970 Mustang he’s always wanted. He starts getting baked on a regular basis. He challenges the shallow ambitions of his driven, real estate agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening). And when he overhears Angela telling Jane that her dad would be “really hot” if only he worked out, Lester hits the weights and the running trail.

ON THE SURFACE, Lester’s behavior is stereotypical midlife crisis, but as you watch Lester reclaim his life force, it’s hard not to root for him—even when he’s leering hungrily at the jaded, precocious Angela.

Ricky makes for an equally ambiguous hero. His self-assurance is rare in a person twice his age—and especially rare for a high-school student who deflects parental suspicions by sporting a brush-cut and wearing ill-fitting polyester slacks (imagine Rushmore‘s Max, stripped of his impulse to ingratiate). Amid textbook dysfunction—a violent, controlling father and a mother who floats through the house with the dazed expression of a battlefield survivor—Ricky lives a rich inner life, thanks to a video camera he carries everywhere. The camera serves to both enlarge and focus his view of the world, and he uses it to get close to and then woo the sullen Jane. These two interact with an amazing emotional transparency that contrasts with Lester’s goofy flirtations with Angela and Carolyn’s worshipful attitude toward a successful rival real estate agent.

Mendes, playing God, shows us these characters’ most revealing and most private moments: Jane pronouncing her profound disgust of Lester; Ricky going limp when his father punches him; Lester masturbating in the shower; Carolyn lustily singing along to “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The point of American Beauty isn’t just watching the perfect suburban shell crack, but seeing the characters glue their own version of it back together. At one point, Ricky tells Jane that he thinks his “heart is going to cave in,” but it’s not for the reason his sad home life would indicate: “Sometimes,” he says solemnly, “I think there’s too much beauty in the world, and I don’t think I can take it.” It’s all in the eye of the beholder, as American Beauty shows.