We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

American Beauty’s ad campaign features an arresting image suitable for the dust jacket of an edition of Lolita: a nymphet’s hand pressing a red rose against her smooth midsection. In small print, below the film’s boldfaced title, appears the admonition “…look closer.” The ad inadvertently symbolizes both the movie’s strengths and weaknesses. Stylistically, it’s extraordinarily well executed—superbly acted, artfully photographed and edited, and filled with unexpected shifts of mood and tone. But if you look closer—which reviewers, unlike moviegoers, are obliged to do—you discover that American Beauty’s lively surface masks a substructure of sociological and psychological platitudes recycled from pop culture’s scrap heap.

English stage director Sam Mendes, who won critical acclaim for his down-and-dirty Broadway revival of Cabaret as well as a certain notoriety for exposing Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room, makes his film debut with this darkly comic portrait of bourgeois malaise. Alan Ball, a New York playwright best known for his three seasons as scriptwriter for the Cybill television series, sets his original screenplay in an unidentified, well-manicured suburb. In voice-over narration accompanying the opening aerial shots of this neighborhood, the movie’s protagonist, 42-year-old Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), informs us that he will be dead in a year, but admits, “I’m dead already.”

A glimpse of the Burnham family’s morning rituals confirms Lester’s confession. After masturbating in the shower—the high point of his day—he morosely prepares to leave for the job he’s held (and hated) for 14 years as a staff writer for a media magazine. His frenetic wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), a real estate agent, revs herself up to unload an expensive house. The two hardly pay lip service to their embittered, self-conscious adolescent daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who can barely stand to be in their presence.

Long ago reduced to a ceremonial arrangement, the Burnhams’ 20-year marriage begins to crumble when Lester develops an embarrassing Humbertian obsession with Jane’s sluttish classmate Angela (Mena Suvari), and Carolyn becomes involved with lounge-lizard real estate magnate Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Jane, ignored by her distracted parents, befriends a newly arrived next-door neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the voyeuristic, drug-dealing son of a tough Marine colonel (Chris Cooper) and a mute, disturbed mother (Allison Janney).

All of the movie’s focal characters undergo unexpected metamorphoses. Lester, aware that he’s about to become a victim of downsizing, blackmails his new boss into offering him a lavish settlement, takes a job flipping burgers in a fast food outlet, stays stoned on grass that he purchases from Ricky, and pumps up his body hoping to entice Angela. Carolyn awakens from her sexless marriage during a bed-busting motel assignation with Buddy. Jane slowly falls in love with the eccentric Ricky, who has been compulsively videotaping the neighborhood’s imitation of life.

Mendes and veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall express the hollow formality of this soulless community by framing the characters in rigid, symmetrical compositions and by symbolically manipulating the color red—notably in Lester’s fantasies of Angela’s naked body adorned with rose petals—to suggest the repressed life force behind its bland exterior. Ball’s dialogue has a bitterly funny edge, ranging from Carolyn’s futile efforts to make Jane appreciate her surroundings (“When I was your age, we lived in a duplex. We didn’t even have our own house”) to Angela’s spacey articulation of her personal philosophy (“Everything that was meant to happen eventually does”).

The director draws zesty performances from his cast. As Lester’s body evolves from baggy to buff, Spacey transforms his impacted discontent into heedless, sardonic candor, challenging his status-conscious, power-driven spouse at every turn, and, in a moment of naked outrage, assailing her as “a bloodless money-grubbing freak.” Birch (in a Christina Ricci role) and Bentley tap into a deep vein of pubescent alienation; Gallagher once again exploits his sexy-slimy persona; Suvari Valley-speaks and potty-mouths her calculating teen strumpet to the max. Bening, the best of the lot, pulls out all stops, starting on a note of tooth-clenching anxiety before exploding in several extraordinary solo set pieces. Early in the film, she psychs herself to unload a property, reciting the mantra “I will sell this house today” as she feverishly cleans it from top to bottom. When she fails, she gives way to a fit of unbridled hysteria. In a later scene, abandoned by Buddy and stimulated by a session at a handgun range, she chants a manic, self-affirming version of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” while driving her car. Here, as in The Grifters and In Dreams, Bening successfully takes risks that few actresses of her stature would even consider.

But Mendes’ cast cannot entirely compensate for Ball’s shallowly developed characters. Lester thinks his life has become a prison, but all we learn of his youthful goals is that he enjoyed smoking dope, screwing and listening to Pink Floyd. Lacking any greater unfulfilled ideals or ambitions, he makes little claim to our sympathy. We’re told even less about Carolyn’s past. Without some evidence that she was once humane and vulnerable—something more substantial than the facile glimpse we’re allowed of a vintage happy family photograph—the film’s one-note depiction of her as an avaricious monster seems gratuitously misogynistic. The secondary characters are generic: the adolescents stunted by their parents’ inability to express emotion; the hardass, neo-fascist military man whose crude homophobia conceals repressed desires; a contented gay couple dragged in for comic relief and then abandoned.

Ball crudely stocks his narrative with red herrings that are better left unelaborated for those who haven’t seen the movie. His cheesy manipulations needlessly insult the intelligence of the selective audience to whom he aims American Beauty—the consequence, I suspect, of the screenwriter’s experience coming up with gimmicks to sustain a long-running sitcom.

Despite its energy and resourcefulness, American Beauty ultimately disappoints because Ball’s ideas are so trite and his presentation of them so cheaply manipulative. Suburban anomie has been an American fiction and film staple since the postwar exodus from cities. Decades ago, Johns Cheever and Updike built their reputations by exploring this theme. (In fact, Cheever’s “The Country Husband” appears to be the template for Ball’s plot. In that masterful story, a suburbanite, revivified by surviving a plane crash, suddenly perceives the emptiness of his existence and develops an all-consuming crush on the family’s teenage baby sitter.) By the late ’50s, Hollywood was cranking out movies about suburban malaise, among them No Down Payment, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Strangers When We Meet, and it continues to address the subject in recent productions such as The Ice Storm and Happiness. Mendes and Ball deserve credit for finding a fresh way to depict this topic, but they fail to come up with anything new to say about it.

American Beauty’s most surprising thematic element is its underlying metaphysical concerns, which become manifest in the closing scenes. Earlier, Ricky shows Jane “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever videotaped, a shot of a white plastic bag blown about by the wind. To him, the image confirms the existence of a benevolent presence behind the physical world. Mendes repeats this footage at the fadeout to symbolize Lester’s acceptance of, and liberation from, the stifling materialism of the American dream turned nightmare. No doubt viewers drawn to the transcendental teachings of Eastern religions will buy this redemptive affirmation, but more skeptical moviegoers may feel that, once again, Lester and his creators have opted for the easy way out of a big mess.