Theater-trained Briton Sam Medes directed this stylish piece of flawed Americana. Fraught, ominous, and eager for importance, it works too hard. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), middle aged and adrift, tunes out his prattling, superficial wife (Annette Bening) and falls for his daughter’s attractive teenaged friend (Mena Suvari). Add a Nazi-sympathizing neighbor (a Marine colonel played by an sublimely ferocious Chris Cooper) and you have flammable liquid.
Eventually, Lester goes down. Stripped of its highbrow pretenses the film is a cautionary tale about suburban life. All such tales risk caricature. Mendes is so sincere that Spacey and Benning lose contact with humanity. What’s left is exquisite technique built around pretty pictures.