Oddly run-of-the-mill

Film - Jonathan Romney struggles to get a closer look at <em>American Beauty</em>

Do white picket fences really exist in the American suburbs, or are they simply an invention of cinema? Over the past two decades, the picket fence has become shorthand for the bland American exteriors that conceal unimaginable strangeness. It's invariably accompanied by - is almost interchangeable with - the words "dark underbelly".

From Blue Velvet on, suburban madness has been such a well-mined seam that you can't help wondering whether American Beauty is just a little late off the blocks, or whether it's so old that it's new, a fresh spin on a strictly generic topic. In the US, no one seems to have objected much to the familiarity of its themes: Sam Mendes's film has been hailed as a triumph for all concerned and a multiple Oscar shoo-in.

American Beauty is indeed a class act, yet it's oddly run-of-the-mill. The story is hardly a departure: middle-aged suburbanite Lester (Kevin Spacey) is tired of his job, tired of domestic life with discontented teenage daughter (Thora Birch) and neurotic estate agent wife (Annette Bening). But his life is transformed: first by conceiving a passion for vacuous teenage sexpot Angela (Mena Suvari), then discovering that Ricky, the weird, sullen kid next door (Wes Bentley) is a supplier of grade-A hash. Lester decides to get in trim for teenage lust, ditching his job and devoting himself to what made him happy in his youth - slinging burgers, smoking dope and driving his dream car with seventies rock at full blast.

It all seems screamingly formulaic: a ready-made mid-life-crisis story spelt out in broad strokes - and, where Bening's character is concerned, starkly misogynistic ones. But we're told to expect something more beneath the surface - "Look closer," the poster tag line urges - and people, predictably, prove to be not what they seem. Lester's rebellion turns the world inside out, right up to a multiple-twist ending dripping with manipulative suspense, when he delivers on his opening voice-over promise to explain his premature death.

Theatre Wunderkind Mendes, best known as guiding spirit of the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London, is in no way a dilettante slumming on screen: he takes to his new medium with flair and confidence. He gets terrific performances from his cast, although some (notably Bening) are required to breathe show-stopping fire into entirely hollow characters. Mena Suvari makes Angela that abrasive bit more than the Clueless valley girl; Chris Cooper makes savage capital out of the bullet-headed marine next door.

Spacey's is such a rich, finely judged turn that no one could begrudge him the inevitable Oscar. Yet his Lester feels like a commentary on a part that Spacey doesn't entirely inhabit. Faintly camp and full of subliminal winks to our cultural knowledge, Spacey wants us to recognise that his Lester is more of a wise ironist than the script's Lester: the actor is indeed "looking closer" - more closely, perhaps, than the character allows for. Such a spectacular show of insightfulness seems curiously counterproductive.

The film's look is broadly realistic but larger than life - quite literally so, given Conrad Hall's composed, immaculately sheened widescreen photography. But the contrast makes the story look all the more slender; the script, by the former sitcom writer Alan Ball, might have stood up better to a rougher, more modest treatment (see Alexander Payne's recent, not dissimilar, comedy Election). Mendes isn't averse to the theatrical, using the image like a proscenium, showing the family dinner side-on and symmetrically, or positioning Carolyn against a screen of louvre windows. He also pulls some showy coups - a cheerleader routine stopped dead by Lester's lustful reverie, or showers of rose petals tumbling from Angela's naked body (but, oh, how he overworks those red, red roses).

There are some worrying cultural anomalies, although I couldn't tell whether Mendes was playing them for incongruity. Would a couple in their mid-forties eat dinner every night to tunes from South Pacific? Conceivably they share an ironic taste for kitsch, but I think it's clumsily contrived to make their life look vapid. (And if "Bali Hai" is understood to be such an abomination, how does DreamWorks have the gall to include it on the soundtrack CD?)

The film ends with Lester confiding that he has known beauty after all: we're left with Ricky's cloyingly poetic video of a bag blowing in the wind. The grace note in Lester's farewell message so glibly ties up the film's argument that it suddenly makes perfect sense that American Beauty is a DreamWorks release: its sweetly acidic, sanitised homily all too easily fits Steven Spielberg's idea of risk and adventure.

Mendes has insisted that American Beauty is a fable, rather than a satire. But, whether you call them satires or not, it compares badly with other recent suburban stories: Todd Solondz's genuinely risky Happiness; Ang Lee's socially acute The Ice Storm; and Paul Thomas Anderson's forthcoming Magnolia, a film that has the courage to let its curiosity and narrative appetite run riot.

Mendes's suave, virtuoso number - which actually does feature white picket fences - is just too neat a package. Look closer, by all means, but there's not much more than meets the eye.

"American Beauty" (18) opens 28 January (London) and 4 February (regional)

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain