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Disturbing, merciless and hugely entertaining, "American Beauty" dissects the middle-class dream with razor-sharp dark humor.

All-American Dysfunction

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There are dark comedies. And then there are "daaaark" comedies. Pump that darkness factor up several notches and you have "American Beauty," which is so dark, it defies its own genre.

Together, director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball have crafted an unblinking peep behind the Martha Stewart home furnishings of suburbia, where normalcy has gone missing and everyone's crazy, especially the folks who don't think they are. In short order, Mendes and Ball recycle all of the suburban myths from teen killers to voracious Lolitas, while keeping us enthralled and wondering if what we're watching is reality or illusion.

Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, a boomer in the midst of a full-blown, midlife crisis. Old Lester has every reason to be despondent; his life sucks. First, he and his success-obsessed Realtor wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) have turned loving into a form of loathing. Second, he's on the fast track to being expendable at work. Third, he's alienated his daughter Jane (Thora Birch). And fourth, he finds himself fantasizing about his daughter's friend, wannabe model Angela (Mena Suvari). And did I mention there's also a weird boy next door with a penchant for videocam peeping?

Sounds vaguely familiar doesn't it? Rather like a spoof of "Ice Storm." Or a more humane "Happiness." But that's the beauty of this film; there's always so much more going on than first appears. Scriptwriter Ball goes deeper than satire, crafting something more sinister, but also something more credible.

"American Beauty" opens with Lester giving us a mini-travelogue through the ersatz picket-fences of his neighborhood. "I'm 42 years old," he tells us. "In less than a year, I'll be dead. Of course, I don't know that yet. In a way, I'm dead already."

Lester and Carolyn Burnham are the antithesis of Ward and June Cleaver, in fact, Lester has to be goaded into taking an interest in his daughter's life. Somehow, it seems sullen Jane has found her way onto the high-school cheering squad, the "Dancing Spartanettes." While desultorily watching her routine at a basketball game, Lester has a life-changing epiphany: Angela comes into his line of vision and nothing will ever be the same. He begins to envision her unclothed under layers of rose petals.

He contrives a way to meet her. And then he decides he must have her. That desire for seduction galvanizes soft-in-the-middle Lester; and he sets out to completely change his life.

Even his daughter's disgust over this erotic infatuation cannot deter Lester. Jane's horrified, but Angela enjoys Lester's attentions. After all, she's been making the boys drool since preschool and she wouldn't know who she was if they weren't. It's the attention that proves she's special.

Just so we don't get too bogged down in the sexual dysfunction of the Burnhams, Mendes and Ball move in a different kind of dysfunction next door: Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Chris Cooper); his catatonic wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and weird son Ricky (Wes Bentley).

I have to warn you — mentally you are probably already figuring out how this new plotline will flow. But if there is any one thing that makes "American Beauty" an unforgettable film, it's that things rarely go where you think they are heading.

Stylishly rendered and superbly acted — Spacey is phenomenal — "American Beauty" is a sublimely original film that pulls off the impossible: making you like these characters, even begrudgingly.

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