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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.