Married With Cynicism, Until Death Do Them Part

Sam Mendes’ American Beauty , from a screenplay by Alan Ball, takes the American suburban, middle-class midlife crisis to a spectacular new dimension of dysfunction-sexual, psychological, professional and sociological. As the latest mainstream movie symptom of our premillennial malaise, American Beauty is so brilliantly acted, written, directed and visualized that for all its despondency and despair, it is a lot of fun. Indeed, as I watched Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening go through the ghastly motions of a terminally failed marriage with both wit and humor, I couldn’t help thinking that they would have been a big improvement over Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s needlessly lugubrious Eyes Wide Shut .

Mr. Spacey’s Lester Burnham long ago bought into the American Dream, and now in the 42nd and last year of his life he belatedly wants out. He tells us all this at the outset in a voice-over of an aerial shot of the forest of maple trees shading the streets of his superficially orderly and comfortable community. Ms. Bening’s Carolyn Burnham is seen in all her materialistic vainglory through her husband’s wearily jaundiced eyes, but we never see him through her eyes. It is mostly his story that is designed to engage us from the beginning, and his exquisitely ironic line readings keep us enthralled until the very end when he begins pouring on the falsely redemptive and nostalgic schmaltz. That is to say, the scenes set in the idealized backstory past, when sour and sullen Lester, Carolyn and their teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) were supposed to have been one big, happy and emotionally healthy family are far less convincing than those set in the decadent and disillusioned present.

Fortunately, unhappy families are generally more dramatically compelling and entertaining than happy families, and the Burnham family is no exception to the rule, but the dysfunction extends far beyond their front lawn. On one side of the Burnham house are two gay professional men self-introduced as Jim No. 1 (Scott Bakula) and Jim No. 2 (Sam Robards). They are always complimenting Carolyn on the roses in her garden, and she is always saying nice things about their stylish attire. These pleasantries are viewed from a lightly satiric distance by an amusingly unamused Lester.

Not that he is homophobic or anything. He can be shown masturbating during his morning shower, and even at night in bed with Carolyn. But that is only because she has long since turned frigid on him, ostensibly because of the stresses and strains of her high-pressure, one-woman real estate agency but more likely because of Lester’s status as a loser mired in a vaguely defined, media-writing, dead-end niche from which he is about to be dislodged by a loathsome efficiency expert called Brad (Barry Del Sherman). Still, this heavy emphasis on sex in a heterosexual marriage to the point of a hypersexual appetite beyond Viagra reminds me of nothing so much as the libidinous, one-track-mind monologues of excessively straight couples in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

Where American Beauty goes over the edge in this respect is in the newly arrived family on the other side of the troubled Burnham homestead. It consists of a sternly homophobic, control-freak, ex-Marine Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), his almost catatonically obedient wife Barbara (Allison Janney) and his once-institutionalized son Ricky (Wes Bentley), a high-tech camera stalker of sorts, who deals drugs big-time and who is increasingly obsessed with Jane. Repelled at first by his intense scrutiny, Jane becomes attracted to his air of authority. The final piece in the jumbled jigsaw puzzle is the self-important teenage siren Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), who is destined to be the last object of Lester’s lecherous daydreams.

The cheerleading spectacle in which both Jane and Angela participate becomes a wet dream flooded with roses for Lester. He and Carolyn, sitting in the stands, are trying wholeheartedly to be dutiful parents. But when Jane brings Angela home for a girlish sleepover, and Lester cannot take his eyes off the nymphet of his wildest fantasies, it is not Carolyn, but Jane, who is offended. Carolyn is too busy being bedded by inspirational real estate tycoon Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher).

All this lechery, copulation and voyeur-ism never becomes as anguished and ultimately as fatal as the wildly melodramatic exposure of the colonel’s raging homophobia as a subterfuge for his lifelong, closeted homosexual inclinations. It is one thing to

play with the possibilities of sexual ambiguity in all of us, it is quite another to violate the light, distanced stylization of the milieu and its characters with a disruptive descent into the pathology of shame, guilt and humiliation for a homophobe self-exposed as a hateful queer.

What makes Mr. Spacey and Ms. Bening so marvelous as cynical misfits makes it improbable that they were ever anything else, and that there was ever a time after their earliest childhood that they didn’t know the score, inning by inning. It is partly the actors, partly the characters and partly the lucidity of the lines they read that makes them darkly funny and slyly identifiable with something in most if not all of us.

Hence, the fatuous rhetoric against the traps of materialism clangs as hollowly in American Beauty as the old Hollywood strictures about love being more important than money, even an enormous amount of money, in choosing a mate. Still, it is very American to believe that we were ever as innocent and spiritual as we would like to think we were before all the current crassness came creeping in with all the upswings in the Dow. But don’t try telling that to all the determined decline-and-fall people in the

media. In any event, Mr. Mendes has made a sparkling directorial debut with a series of strikingly provocative visual coups to both embellish and enhance the contributions of a splendid acting ensemble that reminds us once more of the wealth of acting talent waiting for just such a chance like this.

The Seventh Degree of Kevin Bacon

David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes , from his screenplay, based on Richard Matheson’s novel A Stir of Echoes , turns out to be as noisily obtrusive a ghost movie as the much subtler The Sixth Sense is an uncannily quiet one. Mr. Koepp’s chosen milieu is a tightly knit Chicago blue-collar neighborhood (as opposed to Mr. Matheson’s California tract development in the novel). The idea was to make the background as realistic as possible to contrast with the ghostly foreground, but from the word go Mr. Koepp’s movie makes the audience jump with jolting editing of the most mundane occurrences. And the ear-splitting soundtrack doesn’t make us any calmer, either.

This is 90’s overkill moviemaking with a vengeance. By the end of the movie a gruesome neighborhood murder has been literally unearthed, and the thrills and chills have been extended into the present with two righteous homicides and one attempted suicide, all in a blaze of blood-splattering gunfire. Mr. Koepp and his collaborators weren’t taking any chances with first-week audiences.

Mr. Bacon’s Tom, a career-frustrated telephone lineman, doesn’t help matters in the lead role by seeming already emotionally unstable even before he taunts his bitchy sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him at a small party so that he imagines himself in a large movie auditorium where he is the only spectator before a huge, empty white screen inscribed with indistinct lettering. This is Mr. Koepp’s one visual piece of genius, after which all hell breaks loose, with Tom driven by a ghostly hallucination into increasingly frenzied behavior that makes him look like a raving lunatic to his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), and the neighbors. Only Tom’s little boy Jake (Zachary David Cope) fully understands what is transpiring on the screen. Jake, too, sees ghosts, but he is an advanced paranormal. (Doesn’t every family have a little boy like that?)

Eventually, Tom and Jake are constantly whispering conspiratorially together while Maggie, the concerned and left-out wife and mother, fumes helplessly in the background. The situation could have been played for postfeminist laughs, but the actors are all dead serious. Still, Mr. Bacon, Ms. Erbe, Ms. Douglas, Mr. Cope and the rest of the cast display their considerable if unmodulated talents to adequate advantage for the popcorn level of moviegoing.

Can’t We All Just Get Laid?

Michael Corrente’s Outside Providence , from a screenplay by Mr. Corrente and Peter and Bobby Farrelly, is a sweet little movie almost like the ones we are always complaining they don’t make anymore. I didn’t particularly believe the charming class-crossing boy-girl stuff-between Shawn Hatosy’s underachieving reform school material from Rhode Island trashville packed off to a prep school and Amy Smart’s overachieving, upscale Virginian with a warm heart under her classy facade. But, hey, if you don’t buy the dream you should stay away from the movies altogether.

Mr. Hatosy and Ms. Smart are real comers whether you accept the marvelous delicacy of their relationship or not. Alec Baldwin is a revelation also as the boy’s gruffly affectionate roughneck of a father, and the deep love shown by the Hatosy character toward his crippled kid brother without any gooey sentimentality brought me almost to tears. With all these nice things, I suppose I can almost put up with the box-office infusion of drugs and four-letter words.

Married With Cynicism, Until Death Do Them Part