Whatever He Is, Spacey’s Damn Good … Are You Sitting? Costner’s Great, Too

Whatever He Is, Spacey’s Damn Good

American Beauty may be the best movie of the year. Certainly I have not seen anything this good in 1999, and I seriously doubt I will see anything better. It is the best way I can think of to end an old millennium and begin a new one-the kind of powerful, brilliant, profoundly moving and refreshingly innovative film experience the entire motion picture industry can be proud of, and the kind of rare and provocative once-in-a-filmgoing-lifetime experience audiences can treasure. After a punishing summer of bogus comedies, dumb action epics and brainless sex romps that only the village idiot could applaud, it is certainly a gratifying way to begin the new fall season. The kids have left the mall; time for the grown-ups to take over.

American Beauty is, at first glance, another spin on the dysfunctional American family (is there any other kind?) that might remind you of The Ice Storm , but as each layer unfolds, you realize how complex and unique it is. It throbs with the tempo of a vein pulsing in the head before a stroke. Here, on a maple-lined street in a perfect all-American suburb, no one is what he or she appears to be; everyone is pretending to be someone else, each neighbor hides an inner self behind a mask of purpose and guile, and there are dark secrets in the rose gardens.

Kevin Spacey gives the performance of his life as Lester Burnham, a 42-year-old disaster with a dull job writing pretentious advertising copy for a media magazine, who is festering from a lack of affection. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a perfectly accessorized bitch paralyzed by fear, frustration and sexual boredom who hides her misery in material possessions and prize American Beauty roses. Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is an angry, confused teenager who hates her parents and feels ugly and isolated in her own home. On one side, the neighbors are two gay lovers (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards) who are both named Jim; on the other side, a Marine Corps colonel (Chris Cooper) with the most dangerous secret of all, his zombie wife (Allison Janney) and their weird son Ricky (an astonishing performance by newcomer Wes Bentley), who, behind the guise of a handsome, all-American heartthrob, deals drugs.

Lester fantasizes about his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari), a seductive Lolita whose frank sexuality is really a cover-up for a deep emotional insecurity. Carolyn launches an extramarital affair with a flashy realtor (Peter Gallagher) and finds new power in target practice at a rifle range. Ricky films the whole neighborhood on his camcorder. Nobody has the courage to declare war on this constipated world of phony moral absolutes long enough to face the truth except Lester, who starts working on his abs and smoking pot, quits his job, blackmails his boss for a hefty retirement package and stages a one-man rebellion that wrecks the manicured order and pretense of everyone around him. Meanwhile, the sinister Marine colonel, who collects Nazi dinnerware from the Third Reich in the same display case that houses his military assault weapons, moves closer and closer to madness in a film already infected with a creeping, empty lethargy of its own.

Here is a cesspool-like microcosm of the American dream: a rich and privileged suburb with a lot of disturbed people and one genuine psycho with the power to bring their ghastly world crashing down around their pointed little heads in one act of senseless violence as redemptive as it is electrifying.

It is just one of the ironies in the shattering screenplay by first-time feature film writer Alan Ball that a film this disturbing can also be so funny. American Beauty is the most scalding appraisal of screwed-up American values I have seen in years, yet I found myself laughing out loud at its sharp and biting sense of humor. The characters are so well dissected, their foibles and peculiarities so accurately observed, that they remain human even in their most absurd moments.

The film is also a miraculous directorial debut for British Wunderkind Sam Mendes, the celebrated whiz kid responsible for the London and Broadway revivals of Cabaret . His cunning eye for nuance is so self-assured it’s difficult to believe he hasn’t been directing movies all of his life. Include the meticulous camerawork of the great Conrad Hall and you have the perfect recipe for a demanding and unusual film of surprises and revelations in every scene. The entire cast is uniformly inspired, but it is Mr. Spacey who hypnotizes.

Starting off as an oafish Dagwood Bumstead, he gets laughs but builds confidently as his character grows and changes. After every attempt to be a caring father and loving husband is rebuffed, Lester loses his blank, deadpan doofus look and turns into a raving, self-satisfied Lothario, but even while he’s making you laugh he’s breaking your heart. In his transformation, he finds nobility too late but it’s one of the most stunning portraits of a loser with dignity ever filmed. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t cop a second Academy Award for this remarkable achievement.

American Beauty is a film of such dramatic contrasts that it’s difficult to do justice to its importance in this enthusiastic but brief appraisal. It’s a film of such rich complexity, maturity, revelation, subtlety and paradox that you just have to experience it for yourself. You’ll leave it dazed and thoughtful, ready to re-examine your own life, and you won’t forget it easily. Movies just don’t get any better than this.

Are You Sitting? Costner’s Great, Too

More intelligence and integrity are on view (is this a trend?) in For Love of the Game . Yes, it’s another Kevin Costner baseball picture, but don’t run in the opposite direction just yet. It’s surprisingly sensitive, extremely polished and not quite what you’d expect. And the star is really (you better sit down for this next part) quite wonderful in it.

Under the confident direction of Sam ( A Simple Plan ) Raimi, Mr. Costner gives a restrained but emotionally accessible performance as Billy Chapel, a celebrated pitcher with the Detroit Tigers who, after a 20-year career in baseball, is facing the greatest challenge of his life, on and off the field. He’s tired, he’s facing retirement, he’s got a bad shoulder and constant pain from a near-fatal hand injury, the game has changed, the players and colleagues with whom he grew have died or moved on, and now he’s up against personal problems as well. Not only is he being traded to a new ball club but his girl, Jane, the love of his life for the past five years and the only woman he’s ever treated as more than a baseball groupie, is leaving him for a new job and a different life in London.

Now, in the final game of the season against the New York Yankees, the game that will determine who wins the pennant, Billy is forced to re-examine his priorities. While he stands out there in the middle of Yankee Stadium, with 56,000 screaming fans watching every nerve in his face, he cracks his knuckles and watches the clouds move while the pieces of his life play across his mind like an old movie. For the first time in his years of major league baseball, he realizes he has sacrificed everything for the game. Will he pitch the winning ball in the final inning? Does he learn the trappings of fame are empty without someone you love with whom to share them? Can he extend his career with a new manager and a new team in the twilight of his talent, or will he throw in the towel for personal happiness? It’s the stuff of a menopausal-male soap opera, but so skillfully handled and sincerely played, you can’t help but like the guy. And Mr. Costner, too.

The action scenes on the diamond are exciting and well paced, but it’s the personal side of an athlete’s life that holds the action here. Kelly Preston does a fine job as Jane, the fashion writer with a troubled teenage daughter to raise alone, who teaches Billy to love and trust, while always being forced to play second to his obsession with the game. The film is most engaging when it chronicles their passionate but stormy relationship, developing from casual encounter to intense codependence, while his career rises and fumbles and her doubts grow. Ms. Preston has an unhackneyed naturalism for which the camera has an obvious fondness, and her warmth and honesty have a melting effect on Mr. Costner’s trademark sullenness. The chemistry brings out an unfamiliar softness in his performance that is downright appealing. By the final reel, he actually seems to be living his role with real conviction.

Cynics will feel manipulated, but I haven’t seen a good mushy baseball movie since The Stratton Story . Mr. Costner is no Jimmy Stewart, but he cries almost as much as June Allyson. After Waterworld , The Postman and all the other gruesome, pretentious bombs he’s forced the rest of us to endure, it’s nice, for a change, to watch him suffer.