Sam Mendes's slick American Beauty doesn't age well. It's daring in that it sympathizes with a protagonist who's a pederast though its portrait of an American family on the brink of collapse is essentially a cartoon. In a Swank-less year, Annette Bening would have won an Oscar for her turn as Carolyn, a real estate agent and psychotic mom so emotionally frayed she's become a caricature of her previous self, slapping herself silly in one scene when she fails to sell a house. (Bening's expression of how the personal affects the professional is the film's greatest asset.) The performances by the young actors are equally fine, even though Wes Bentley's Ricky Fitts is pure hyperbole, an exaggeration of soulful teenage-ness, and the little secret that torments Mena Suvari's cheerleader is offered by the filmmakers as a trite rationale for the character's sluttiness. Lester (Kevin Spacey), a horny baby boomer with a taste for teenage skin, headlines this freak show that includes a next-door neighbor who is a Nazi-lover and latent homosexual (Chris Cooper) and whose wife (Allison Janney) is a laughable vision of a woman stunned into submission after years of bullet-fire intimidation. Screenwriter Alan Ball is essentially a peddler of smut, but Mendes directs with the brio of a carnival ringmaster, and the film's wind-down is gripping in its over-the-topness. At its worst, the film's message is cornball: one does not need to be extraordinary to be ordinary. At its best, American Beauty sometimes amuses in its attempts to expose the grotesqueries of suburban life.