Everybody hates him. He deserves to be hated. He is the future. He is the replacement. He's what's next. It's over for us, it's just beginning for him.

Sam Mendes: so tender, so charming, so young, so gifted, so modest, so British, so Cambridge. What's not to hate?

He's only one of the hottest theatrical directors in the world, with his stage-busting "Cabaret" still on the boards, the big new Stephen Sondheim musical in development for the spring, and the legendary backside of one N. Kidman in "The Blue Room" burned into the erotic consciousness of Western man forever, the little weasel has now had the affrontery to make what will probably be regarded as the year's best movie.

Buzz, buzz, buzz: "American Beauty," with Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, has got everybody talking. Attention "Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense": You are now officially over, butted off the cocktail circuit by young Mr. Mendes. It will certainly earn him an Oscar nom and very probably the Oscar itself. Not bad for a washed-up ball player.

Okay, the game wasn't our superior brand called baseball, but that horrid Brit garbage called cricket, but that's one of the influences that created Sam. He's a new thing: an Orson Welles who can hit a googly.

It is said--though not by him, for such a claim would be arrogant--that he was hired for his first theatrical job, at the Chichester Festival Theater in 1987 out of Cambridge, because he was such a googly blaster or two-hop trapper or rebound-snarfer or wicket-slider or whatever the hell it is in cricket, because the director of the festival wanted to field cricketeers who could hand the Royal Shakespeare Company its head on a platter. Agincourt, and all that. But when queried, Sam Mendes modestly eschews a direct answer, modestly avers that cricketing only had a little to do with it, he was just lucky and so on and so forth.

Of course he's a decent chap! See, it's all part of the pattern! See how easy it would be if he were an arrogant snot, a Tory fop, a royal pain in the Antipodes like some of them, but here he is, absolutely super pleasant and engaging. Makes us mad! I hate it when they're so damnned . . . well behaved!

"I learned the principles of leadership from sports teams," he says. "When you're the captain of a team"--he also played football, as the English mistakenly call soccer--"your first responsibility is to exercise authority without arrogance, to get people to work together for a common goal. And that of course is what you're doing as a director.

"I'm not a teacher or a coach. I'm a captain. I find a way to bring out of people what is latent, what's there, rather than teaching them something new."

He applies this principle to the current movie and his most famous previous project.

"When I met Kevin Spacey, I felt that there was something in him far more vulnerable than those quick-talking, assertive, slick parts that had made him famous. I wanted to get that into the film. When I met Nicole Kidman, I found a woman who was very bright, funny and energetic. I wanted to get that on the stage. That's my instinctive philosophy."

He is great working with performers, no doubt about it. Almost certainly, Spacey will get another Academy Award nomination, and so, too, will Annette Bening. Others in the cast may well be celebrated, like Chris Cooper as an abusive yet weirdly loving father, Wes Bentley as his strangely detached son and Thora Birch as the daughter of the Bening-Spacey marriage next door.

What a strange movie it is. Spacey plays Lester Burnham, an archetypal suburbanite with a nice house, wife and daughter, but his life is headed straight downhill. His job performance is skidding; his wife, Carolyn, hates him; his teenage daughter, Jane, won't speak to him; and he hates himself. Worse, a field grade officer--"Col. Frank Fitts, United States Marines!" (Cooper)--has moved in next door with a peeping Tom son (Bentley) who videotapes everything and a wife numbed toward catatonia by Frank's bluster.

The movie is hateful, hostile, aggressive, finally violent, and funny as hell--as well as heartbreaking, strangely beautiful, infinitely sad and wholly unforgettable. It watches as Lester's life unravels in stately magnificence, like a star exploding in a different cosmos as viewed through a light-year-spanning telescope. Lester's wife begins an affair with a crass real estate mogul, his daughter begins one with the peeping Tom (who, in one of the movie's many astonishing reversals of stereotype, turns out to be a solid, almost heroic presence) while Lester himself quits his job and begins to conjure ways to seduce his daughter's best friend (Mena Suvari). For a movie so merry with rancor, it heads inevitably toward violence. He's come up, all the smart boys say, with a thing that's particularly American, somehow, this . . . this . . . cricketeer!

"Yes, it's very interesting. You are required to make an imaginative leap to a different culture. It requires a certain amount of objectivity, yet it frequently turns out that outsiders make the best movies. For example, there have been some great movies made about us by others. The great movie about Englishness, 'Remains of the Day,' was directed by an American, produced by an Indian and written by a German from a novel by a Japanese. Yet they all saw us with saintly clarity. I'd like to feel that at least I have no associations to bring to an American project, and that's a good thing. You can know too much to see it clearly."

He'd shot up the theatrical ladder, becoming a star director at 24 when his production of "London Assurance," at Chichester, went to the Theatre Royal in London; next his production of "The Cherry Orchard," with Dame Judi Dench, opened in London. Soon he was rethinking "Cabaret," "The Glass Menagerie" and "Company," bringing a new edge to London, then world theater.

Films, as with many another young hotshot, were the next step.

"I was taking meetings with people, and I went to DreamWorks, and I met Steven"--as in Spielberg--"and he said, 'I think this would make a damned good movie.' He handed me the script. Of course he'd also handed it to seven or eight others. I read it on the flight back to London, and the first thing I did when I was done was read it again. I saw it in my mind right away, filmically, if you will. I called my agent and said, 'I really want to get this.' "

The script was by former playwright and sitcom writer Alan Ball, a blisteringly corrosive examination of suburban angst, betrayal, loneliness.

"When I met with them again, I told them what it would look like, who would be in it. I actually pitched myself to them. It's very un-English, but I did what I had to do. I wanted to put the story front and center, before the look of the film. "

That's the chief gift of a director: to tell stories. "And it's difficult to bring off, because you wake up one day and you're working with an army. It's a very bizarre thing."

For that reason, Mendes hates certain affectations of hotshot directors.

"I don't like to see 'A film by,' in the credits, followed by a name," he says contemptuously. "No one man could do a film. I couldn't possibly do a film on my own. Without the actors, the writer, the brilliant cinematographer, I'd be utterly lost."

And he almost was. The first day and a half on the set was a complete loss.

"You think you're doing so well, and everybody's patting you on the back and telling you it's so fabulous, and then, the next day you look at the rushes, and you think, 'It doesn't look anything like I wanted!' It wasn't real. It felt too cartoony. It was somehow not alive. We had to throw it all out. But at least in that way, I defined what I didn't want."

He says of his early struggle, "I kept telling myself I can get through anything because nothing is as difficult as when I was a kid. I have a crutch. I draw. I storyboard. Not very well, you know, just stick figures, but if I can work out a representation of what I saw in my head when I first read the script, then I know it'll be all right. I think I see things first. I don't feel them until I do them, but I see them first of all. That's how I stay close to my instinctive reaction to the story. I am drawn to certain meanings. That's where my raw material comes from."

Decoded, this is a reference to his own youth as an only child in a marriage that broke up when he was 5; he is the son of a lecturer in English literature and an author of children's books.

"At a certain point in my life I was desperate for structure. Then I stumbled on it. I went as a schoolboy to Stratford and I saw three plays--'Antony and Cleopatra,' 'The Merchant of Venice' and 'The Tempest' and I can still remember every detail and can recite from them exactly. I knew: That's it. When I got to Cambridge, I got into a rehearsal room, and I just wanted to have a go at it. I got hooked. That was it. That was my life."

Now the filmmaker is rumored to be on the verge of signing an exclusive contract with DreamWorks for three more films, and appears to be on the verge of one of those important careers.

"In theater," he says, "the trick is to bring the world into a room. In film, the film is the world! I'm ready for the world. I want sand! I want camels! I want muskets!"