CARDBOARD CHARACTERS are not necessarily bad. Action films and comedies rely on them to keep a film from stalling into slow and gratuitous "character development." Cardboard characters are abstract enough to allow audiences to recognize surface characteristics, but without the discomfort of actually having to think about them. They are comfortable, often enjoyable, precisely because they're not challenging. There is a downside, though. If the pacing is too slow or the story is stupid, these generic character types can sink a film, exposing it for the shallow dreck it really is. Luckily, the highly entertaining dark comedy American Beauty uses its cardboard characters very well, even if its message is a bit shoddy.

Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, a magazine writer who's long since given up striving for happiness. He's married to Carolyn (Annette Bening), a bitchy real estate agent more interested in the appearance of success than true happiness. Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is also unhappy, saddled with an awkward beauty that doesn't play in high school, and who's alienated from her parents because her mom's a bitch and her dad ends up lusting after every girlfriend she brings home. When a mysterious teen with a camcorder moves in next door, people learn to see themselves more clearly and everything changes, not always for the better.

The movie opens with video footage of Jane complaining how her dad jacks off every time she brings a friend home, with the guy behind the camera asking if she would like him killed. After a title card, we see a helicopter shot of a suburban neighborhood and hear Kevin Spacey's voice-over narration: "I'm 42 years old. In a year, I'll be dead. Of course I don't know that yet. In a way, I'm dead already." Several things are immediately established: the use of video as an expository device, the story as a recollection by Spacey's character, a certain level of smugness in the writing, and the actor's ability to overcome that.

Yes, this is Lester's story, and the fact that it is his story explains, even justifies, the caricatures of these people around him; they embody the unspoken (often negative) feelings he has for them. Not that he paints himself as some sort of angel. He is as critical of himself as he is of those around him, particularly when it comes to his daughter's friend Angela (Mena Suvari). For Lester, Angela is the ultimate cheerleader fantasy figure, sexually promiscuous and with a thing for older men (she claims she likes knowing that guys jack off to her image, because that means she has a shot at being a model). Throughout the film, his obsession with the teenager, not to mention her portrayal as a vixen who wants him, is distasteful. By the end of the film his fantasy is deflated -- though it does go on long enough for you to suspect this is a fantasy for the director as well.

Even though he does start to work out in order to impress his new lust-object Angela, he really starts to change thanks to the mysterious neighbor kid Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Bored to tears at one of his wife's meet-and-greet real estate parties, Lester notices Ricky is working as a caterer. Ricky immediately invites him outside to smoke some pot. When Ricky's boss tells him to get back to work, he quits, and this action so impresses Lester he decides that -- seeing as he hates his life and consequently has nothing to lose -- he'll begin to say and do anything he feels like, too. He quits his job, starts smoking pot regularly (Ricky's real job is as a dealer, anyway), listens to more and more of his favorite '60s rock, and basically lives the dream life of the college student he once was. It is this, not his lust for young women, that leads to his downfall. The bittersweet moral of the story is voiced by Ricky's dad, the homophobic Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper): "You can't just go around doing whatever you feel like. You need structure. You need discipline." Because Lester breaks the unwritten rules of suburban society, because he emphasizes happiness over status, he must be punished.

American Beauty is the first feature film of Broadway director Sam Mendes, best known for the latest stage version of Cabaret, and for getting Nicole Kidman naked in The Blue Room. In American Beauty, like a lot of theater-turned-movie directors, Mendes often sticks to specific locations for the actors to work through a scene, and when he does try to explore the potential of cinema, he does so with obvious and artificial imagery. What he gains with this style, thanks to his casting and stage directing experience, are some remarkable performances.

I will not be surprised if Kevin Spacey wins an Oscar for this funny and often unexpected performance as what could easily have been an unlikable character. Meanwhile, Bening, and in particular, Cooper, give so much more to their stereotypically repressed characters (each of which has a "dramatic turn" near the end), they ought to be nominated, too. The writing is snappy enough and the actors are good enough that you nearly forget how artificial the whole set-up is, this look at suburban life through the recollections of a dead, disgruntled pedophile. Just don't start thinking you can do and say whatever you want afterward, lest you end up dead, too.

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