London theatre director Sam Mendes’s debut as a movie director has been treated by some critics as if it were a missive from the gods. Perhaps it was the opening scene which showed Kevin Spacey jerking off in the shower which did it for them – so bold, so adult. The film locks straight in to a long line of suburban dystopian drama and hangs its story off the jowls of Spacey, playing the worm that turned, the comfortable middle-class corporate Joe who chucks it all in for the easy release of drugs and sex after he becomes infatuated with his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari). His wife, meanwhile, is filling in the odd minutes she has left over from giving too much of herself to her job as a realtor by embarking on an affair. His daughter, also, is up to something she shouldn’t, with the strangely stalkerish boy next door (Wes Bentley). Whatever you think about the film, there is no doubting Spacey’s performance – it is a humdinger. Spacey squeezes the script to bulk out a character who is, on closer examination, one-ply. The other characters, too, verge on the one-dimensional. But are Annette Bening the wife and Thora Birch the daughter deliberately so thin – for some sort of comic effect, or are we watching artless caricature? The settings, dreamily photographed by Conrad Hall, are worryingly familiar too. Depending on inclination, or mood, they might seem necessarily sketchy, to allow the plot to unfold and the drama to take flight. Or on another day completely unrealistic, a fragile chimera only there to be knocked down, in order for the drama to claim some spurious victory – yay, suburbia vanquished! Is it Noh theatre? Or just a case of no drama? That’s, perhaps, the beauty of American Beauty.
© Steve Morrissey 2000