If there's a certainty in the Oscar race come March, it's that American Beauty will land the award for Best Original Screenplay. Which would be a shame, because Alan Ball's screenplay is one of the few things about the film that doesn't deserve any kind of award recognition; this is a case of finely wrought direction and ace acting wringing all the good out of a flawed screenplay while (mostly) avoiding the bad. Ball has spent time working on sitcoms and his script shows all the signs of TV thinking: the characterization is often no more than caricature, the film's most important plot point hinges on a misunderstanding so contrived that even the makers of (say) Suddenly Susan would be embarrassed at its tackiness, and too often mistakes smug irony for subversive thinking. Ball, I think, is trying to transcend the sitcom genre here; however, he only manages to do so in bits and drabs and he has to rely on his cast to supply the proper emotional shading.
Which is where the great acting comes in. Kevin Spacey delivers a knockout of a performance as Lester Burham, wringing the full comic juice out of his midlife crisis and then turning in a great dramatic performance when he finally realizes his folly, and Wes Bentley whose unnervingly self-assured Ricky Fitts (much like Van in Egoyan's Family Viewing) is the film's one character who isn't based on sitcom stereotype. Thora Birch and Mena Suvari also do fine work on letting their characters develop unexpected layers as the film progresses. Sam Mendes also deserves applause for some highly imaginative staging. While some of his tricks are quite theatrical in nature, they work for the film.
No more so than in the horrid Martha Stewart cartoon that is Annette Benning's role; saddled with a hopeless part, she alone among the cast is forced to spend the film flailing about like an overcaffeinated refugee from Must See TV.
Needless to say, I find the New York Press outside of its film section, The Straight Dope, and Carol Lay's Story Minute to be a nauseating reading experience; it's where all the smug neoconservative morons and hipsters who wrote for your college newspaper went after they graduated.
Which come to think of it covers much of the same ground as Beauty (and better, I might add), especially in the brilliant comic scene at the beginning where Van and his stepmother's conversation is synced perfectly to the laugh track of the sitcom they're watching.