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Lorey Sebastian/©1999 Dreamworks LLC
Mena Suvari beguiles Kevin Spacey.

Beauty's Pageant
Therapy through taboo in American Beauty
Film review by STEPHEN SHORT



Peculiar as pencil shavings, intimate as blood, American Beauty is all in the eye of the beholder. It's therapy through taboo: drugs, lust, homosexuality and voyeurism presented in everyman language, with scattered dollops of comedic cleansing.

Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) and their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) play the family in suburbia living the American Dream. At least, that's how it seems. But they're all disenchanted and don't know what to do about it.

 
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Lester's efforts to change, both mentally and physically, are the gear shifts for the movie. The conversion starts when his life lit and loins fired by Angela (Mena Suvari), his daughter's best friend in high school. He takes to her as a cat laps milk, but more for what she prompts and promotes in him than for subcutaneous thrills. She too is a lost soul and her friendship with Lester's daughter is one of convenience; they both want to be made to feel special by the other.

At the same time Lester starts a pharmaceutical relationship with next-door neighbor's teenage son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who watches life through an ever-present video-camera lens. He furtively films Lester's daughter as she undresses in the window. None too chuffed with Lester's increasing happiness, Lester's wife Carolyn, who wants the best of everything, starts an affair with real-estate colleague Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher).

The mess of Lester's motives and other people's responses to them are tightly crafted by director Sam Mendes, whose shooting style doesn't waste an eyelash. Spacey simmers, Suvari tantalizes, Bening purrs and the screen murmurs back. Birch and Bentley's performances are quieter but enthrall no less. Odd, though--it's a film that speaks to everyone, yet you crave the guilty pleasure of stealing back to the cinema and seeing it on your own.

(American Beauty opens in Hong Kong March 2.)



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