Let's not shout here. There's no call for it at the moment. It's true that for decades now there have been people pointing at certain movies and screaming "movie of the year" at the top of their lungs. Whether or not Sam Mendes' extraordinary "American Beauty" is the American film of the year remains to be seen. No matter how the score card reads at year's end, it's certainly going to be one of them.
It is, at the very least, a prime exhibit of that rarest of rare cases -- when every part of a movie is notably superb on its own and meshes perfectly besides. If you wanted to know what perfection in Hollywood filmmaking might look like at the end of the 20th century, "American Beauty" is probably as close as you're going to get.
"American Beauty" is all of a piece: remarkable script (by a graduate of "Cybill"), wryly clever performances and marvelous, masterly cinematography (by legendary lensman Conrad Hall).
It does something that, quite frankly, I didn't think could be done before actually seeing it: It combines sharp, sitcommy gaggery about family angst in suburbia and the subtle sense of the miraculous in everyday life that the greatest minds in America have felt since Emerson, at least.
Put it this way: If John Cheever had been a filmmaker in 1999, "American Beauty" is a film he might have made.
The whole point of this film isn't snotty japery at the more squalid ambitions of suburban life (though it is often wickedly and hilariously funny about them), it's the holy and unexpected side view of it all that comes from Alan Ball's singular script.
Yes, it's true that this movie could be said to be everything good that could come from marrying Todd Solondz's "Happiness" and Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm." But it is really about something ineffably sweeter than that. And don't let anyone tell you this is New Age mushery, either. The sacredness of the everyday is one of the most distinguished strains in American thought. (In college lectures they throw around words like "immanence" and "numinousness," but what they're talking about is very much what this film is getting at.)
At first, "American Beauty" seems like an especially funny case of middle-aged crazy. Lester (Kevin Spacey in his first leading-man role) is at the end of his rope. His wife has lost erotic interest. His daughter (Thora Birch) never listens to him, and the new boss at the office asks him to fill out a memo answering that doomful managerial question: Just what is it that you actually do here, anyway?
While all this is going on, he goes to a high school basketball game to lend parental support to his daughter the cheerleader. He winds up thunderstruck by the squad's teen siren (Mena Suvari), a sex-talking mini-babe who likes to see men drool at her because it proves she has what it takes to be a model. It's an article of faith in her young religion of With-It-ness, that "there's nothing worse in life than being ordinary."
The movie, to its glory, has other ideas.
Don't let the all-too-easy satiric scores early on fool you. Yes, it's a bit too obvious when their little nuclear family sits down to dine to a record of "Bali Hai" from "South Pacific." That's getting at the grotesquery of banality a little too easily. And yes, the family's repressed next-door neighbor -- an Army officer (Chris Cooper, in the film's most lacerating performance) is an over-the-top disciplinarian for his drug-dealing son. He makes, for instance, the kid give him on-the-spot urine samples. The kid keeps a secret supply of pediatric baby urine just in case.
And yes, Lester's wife's affair with her idol in the real estate game (Peter Gallagher) is a contemptuous burlesque of adultery. But as Annette Bening plays her, she's such a bundle of falsity, expectation and abject disappointment that quick, illicit sex is the only way she can hook up with the ambitious woman she once was.
It's Lester's case of middle-aged crazy that has glorious panache. He quits his job and blackmails a nice settlement for himself. He starts smoking the gonzo, high-octane weed of the kid dealer next door. And he pumps up wildly, to get himself into shape so he can live out his cheerleader fantasies. (In his lovelier and funnier daydreams, he imagines her bathing in rose petals and being, in fact, composed of nothing but rose petals within.)
Lester used to be the man who, on meeting people for a third time, would say: "That's OK. I wouldn't remember me, either." Now he's an "ordinary guy with nothing to lose." In other words, dangerous. And on his way to be legendary. He smokes grass while tooling around at top speed in his muscle car listening to tapes of the Guess Who's "American Woman."
Meanwhile, his daughter is being romanced by his dealer next door, a kid with an omnipresent camcorder eager to catch "this entire life behind things, this incredibly benevolent force."
That's the magic realism of "American Beauty" -- that in its satanic little safari into the very dark heart of suburbia, it comes out with a vision of grace all the more precious because it's so ordinary.
That this is director Mendes' first film shouldn't surprise anyone. His stage work -- in Broadway's "The Blue Room" and "Cabaret" -- is noted for striking visuals and eroticism. He had the right strategy for a debut filmmaker -- get one of the great cinematographers to help you and you can't really go wrong.
For all its acidly skewed vision of the suburban world, this is a movie about grace that exhibits the very thing it's about.
A rare film. To say that it shouldn't be missed, at this stage, is almost redundant.
RATING: **** STARS