"American Beauty" is getting talked about.
Its dazzling look and sarcastic script impress some; and Thomas Newman's dour yet somehow sparkly score is the kind of intelligent complement that director Sam Mendes has consistently brought to sitcom writer Alan Ball's original script. Some reviews have derided the movie as a riff on suburban hollowness along the lines of "The Truman Show" or "Happiness." Others have bought it hook, line and ad campaign, imagining a perfect movie where there is only a fascinatingly conflicted one.
"American Beauty" is an ensemble portrait of the botched dreams of U.S. suburbia. Imagine the visual beauty and thematic sorrow of "The Ice Storm," but with savage and profane jokes delivered with impeccable timing. Kevin Spacey's adroit comic timing has never had a better showcase, playing Lester Burnham, a trade-magazine writer whose mid-life crisis rapidly turns nuclear family meltdown. Annette Bening is his equally frustrated realtor wife, and Mendes gives her room to pull out the Oscar-nominable stops in several rueful crying jags. The Burnhams have a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, a poker-faced Modigliani) who one day introduces her father to her best friend, Angela (exquisitely princessy Mena Suvari). Angela's fear is the same of everyone in the film's physical and narrative cul-de-sacs: "There's nothing worse in life than being ordinary."
Talking to Spacey last week at the House of Blues, in a bordello-décor conference room studded with Buddha statues, the acting is all I wanted to talk about. But Spacey, who directed a small movie called "Albino Alligator," found Mendes, a hot theater director, to be as interested in style as performance. "It starts with the fact that Alan Ball's script is quite visual -- [the motif of] rose petals, all those fantasy sequences. So you read the script with a certain knowledge that the visual images were going to become important in the storytelling. Sam told me from our very first meeting that he wanted the film to have a visual style, but not to impose one on it. He wanted to keep frames almost Norman Rockwell in their composition, and how spare it would be, and how characters would start small in the frame and how that would shift in the course of the film. When I saw them setting up shots, even when I saw the [finished] movie, I was always conscious of the fact it was really simple. It's taking the art of cinema and presenting it with out a lot of camera moves and trickery, with the exception of the fantasy scenes. To me, it's so effective because it is simple."
Made on a relatively responsible budget for a studio film -- reportedly under $15 million -- "American Beauty"'s creative team were left to their own devices. "The deal that was struck was, that if you keep under this number, we won't bother you," the 40-year-old actor says. "DreamWorks was phenomenally supportive and I'm still amazed that a major studio did this film."
A mimic since childhood, Spacey is always Mr. Intonation, but Lester's moods are unusually well-calibrated, leading toward a cathartic instant near film's end that involves the response, "I feel good." Spacey's smile is not resigned or merely accepting, but quietly joyous. "That's a very nice description of what, y'know, Sam I spent a great deal of time talking about," Spacey says. "We wanted Lester's evolution to be completely organic and to have the spiritual and emotional and physical intertwined in a way that you didn't really perceive him changing at any particular moment. Just quite amazingly, he evolves into another person, his priorities shift, and by the end of the film he finds a kind of beautiful inner peace that all those crazy things he was doing were quite valuable and important to him to walk through to get there. It was great to have someone like Sam to help you through that. That's a hard thing to map out when you're on a very short schedule. So you're shooting 'early' Lester in the morning and "later' Lester in the afternoon. Even the physical work -- I had to get in the best shape possible, and then the rest of it we created through posture and costumes and makeup and that sort of thing."
We dwell on that cathartic moment for a moment longer. "I want to be slightly cryptic about it, because I don't want to give anything away. But in actuality, it doesn't matter if you find it for a lifetime or whether you find it for a minute. The fact that you find it, y'know. I've really been pleased to hear that audiences are trying to get in and the film is building on word-of-mouth instead of a huge campaign. I think audiences are recognizing the journey even if the experiences aren't their own."
There's dialogue throughout the movie that could easily be too on the nose, or precious and affected. Spacey says that Mendes' attention in rehearsals was key to keeping the tone consistent. "Some film directors rehearse but really don't know what to do. In rehearsal, you keep attacking things in a new way. You make different discoveries as you go further down the line. Three days later, something on page 75 informs something that happened on page 45. Where's the character making a leap, is that too soon? Is this going to be too strong? Trying to gauge that through the whole movie is why a director's perspective is so critical. Sam was phenomenally helpful through this movie because we wanted Lester's arc to be nothing but seamless."