Don't be deceived by appearances. American Beauty may look like yet another Middle American family drama, with tears, laughter, rifts and reconciliations, but it isn't. Yes, it's a family drama (well, kind of...), yes it's set in Middle America and, yes, there are laughter and tears and rifts (although it soon becomes obvious that there won't be much reconciliation going on).
The first hint you should have that you're going to be watching something different here, something unique, is the fact that this `family drama' is directed by British theatre prodigy Sam Mendes. Mendes won awards for his revival of Cabaret, directed the original stage version of Little Voice and excited tabloids with The Blue Room (which involved roughly 30 seconds of Nicole Kidman peeling her clothes off). So you know you're going to be treated to a far fresher approach than you'd expect from schmaltz-prone Hollywood solids such as Ron Howard or Garry Marshall.
The nearest thing you could compare American Beauty to is Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, which also had an outsider director scrutinising Stateside suburban life. But even that doesn't come close: Beauty is funnier, deeper and - yes - warmer than The Ice Storm.
Mendes allows you to become far more emotionally involved with his characters than Lee did, which isn't difficult with a cast as accomplished as this. Kevin Spacey is flawless as Lester, seamlessly charting his transformation from a crumpled, hunched loser in-to a supremely self-confident forty-something slacker.
Annette Bening, meanwhile, throws all her acting energy into playing the immaculately feathered Carolyn, making her snappy and superficial enough for you to believe that Lester would grow to find her so repellent, yet resisting what could have been an all-too-easy slide into caricature. When she bursts into tears after a comically disastrous day, you can't help but feel guilty for laughing at her.
There's not a single false note struck by any of the actors, even the younger ones. Thora Birch plays the troubled adolescent without resorting to stamp-your-feet theatrics, while Mena Suvari switches to the flip side of her American Pie nice-gal persona, pouting and preening as an oddly fragile, wannabe-model teenie-bitch. Finally, Wes Bentley is ideal as Ricky, the enigmatic boy-next-door with a compulsion for camcorders, blurring the line between unhinged weirdo and artistically inspired genius.
Indeed, blurring the lines is precisely what American Beauty is about. The movie itself is almost impossible to define accurately: it has elements of black comedy, satire and even resembles a crime thriller at times. While the outcome is obvious from the first line of Lester's unintrusive voice-over, you can never work out exactly how you're going to get there. But what is certain is that American Beauty is a profoundly satisfying piece of cinema which works its way inside you, grabs hold of your heart and simply refuses to let go.
Don't miss the first perfect, character-driven movie of the year. Spacey, Bening and Mendes all deserve Oscars, contributing to a film which is bold and subtle, hilarious and weepy, and - most significantly - both critic and crowd-pleasing.