American Beauty
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Alan Ball
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
NY Distribution Status: now playing (DreamWorks)

Grade: B

Had it opened quietly, without fanfare, I'd be hailing it as an uncommonly assured debut, deeply flawed but still frequently thrilling; my solid 'B' would surely strike most readers as reasonably high praise. Instead, thanks to widespread critical adulation and buzz-provoking Spielbergian hosannahs, I'm now more or less obligated to don my trusty cape and tights (the big orange 'G' on the chest stands for 'Grump,' incidentally) and take to the cyberstreets, battling the evil scourge that is unwarranted hype, in the name of more discriminating moviegoers everywhere. Fact is, it's easy to see why many folks think American Beauty a masterpiece: few studio pictures in recent years have been this brazenly self-confident; and it's such a relief to sense, immediately and unmistakably, that the people in charge knew exactly what they were doing (or thought they did, at any rate, which amounts to the same thing) that the movie is a pleasure to watch even when it isn't quite working. That it fails to coalesce as one would hope is largely due to a somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward its dramatis personae: Spacey's deadpan-energetic performance deftly walks a tightrope between dramatic plausibility and comic exaggeration, encompassing both moments of quiet revelation and bona-fide spit takes; but Bening never quite manages to transcend or transform the demented caricature she was handed (albeit not for lack of trying -- you can see the sweat), and other characters -- notably Mena Suvari's haughty temptress and Chris Cooper's tortured martinet -- are treated as pawns, magically metamorphosing into entirely new people when the script demands a sacrifice. (No doubt some will argue that Mendes and Ball are being compassionate and generous, showing us the fallible human beings lurking beneath the stereotypes; all I can say is that I didn't buy either "transition" when it happened, and so both came across as mere opportunism.) Nor is the film half so profound as it clearly aspires to be -- most of what it has to offer is garden-variety suburban angst, extra sarcasm please, and I'd be more inclined to see poetry in a plastic bag's herky-jerk wind-dance if I weren't being lectured at the same time about how incredibly goddamn poetic it is. Still, Mendes has unquestionably got an eye (especially given his theatrical background -- generally a warning sign), and his visual expertise is assisted by a beautifully apprehensive score by Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, The Player) -- hands down the best of the year to date. Listen to the guitar ease in and out during Spacey's vision of Suvari in the tub, and try to imagine the scene working without it.