Director : Sam Mendes
Screenplay : Justin Haythe (based on the novel by Richard Yates)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Wheeler), Kate Winslet (April Wheeler), Kathy Bates (Helen Givings), Richard Easton (Howard Givings), David Harbour (Shep Campbell), Kathryn Hahn (Milly Campbell), Zoe Kazan (Maureen Grube), Dylan Baker (Jack Ordway), Michael Shannon (John Givings)
When Richard Yates published his first novel Revolutionary Road in 1961, it was part of a wave of social criticism that rejected the comfy conformity of the American suburban ideal of the 1950s--manicured lawns, happy housewives, and bring-home-the-bacon husbands--by rooting beneath the surface and finding neurosis, disillusionment, anger, and, most importantly, lack of self-awareness. Along with books such as John Keats’s A Crack in the Picture Window (1956) and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and films like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1956), Revolutionary Road depicted the inevitable catastrophe that results from people who don’t understand themselves and buy into a bankrupt dream. Seen against a culture that whole-heartedly embraced The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, such a stance is nothing short of radical and, some might say, necessary.
More than forty years later that stance is not so radical; it is, in fact, very nearly a cliché. But that hasn’t stopped Revolutionary Road from making it to the big screen with above-the-title actors, an Oscar-winning director, and enough art pedigree to ensure attention, even if the resulting film is more bluster than substance. Another year, another Hollywood-anointed swipe at suburban malaise, each one a little less moving and a little more trenchant than the last. After the awards-baiting The Hours (2003) and Little Children (2006), are we really meant to be shocked, shocked I tell you!, that the upper-middle-class denizens of picture-perfect suburban homes harbor resentment about their homogenized lives and endlessly deferred dreams? Apparently, director Sam Mendes (who arguably reignited the trend with his Oscar-winning 1999 debut American Beauty) and screenwriter Justin Haythe seem to think so.
The title Revolutionary Road derives from the street in Connecticut where the film’s uneasy protagonists, Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), live with their two small children. The film opens with their meeting at a crowded party, both fresh-faced and eager to embrace life (he seems open to the world and she wants to be an actress), and then immediately cuts to seven years later, where April’s appearance in a disastrous amateur play ignites the first of many knock-down, drag-out, screaming fights in which the not-so-happy couple drive straight at each other’s throats. The pattern is set, with Frank clumsily attempting to say something positive, followed by April’s cool rejection of his plainly transparent need to maintain the peace at the expense of truth, which unleashes his inner resentment. Truth comes spilling out--shrieking, in fact--after which Frank desperately tries to recant what he’s said. But, by then it’s too late. The ugliness is exposed.
Given that our introduction to Frank and April is anything but pleasant, the film gives us little to mourn as the Wheelers go about their slow path toward self-destruction. The limited portrayal of anything resembling happiness (comprised entirely of the opening scene and a few brief flashbacks) is a self-consciously arch means of suggesting that there never was any true happiness, only the fleeting illusion that it might exist. Frank and April are both miserable characters, but they differ substantially in that Frank is a barren soul with no real idea of what he wants while April is a dreamer who imagined a better life before finding herself stranded in the beautified suburban wasteland (in this regard, DiCaprio is arguably miscast because he is too interesting a presence to suggest Frank’s essential emptiness).
Because April is the dreamer, she tends to come across more sympathetically, and it is little surprise that it is her idea to rekindle the dying flames of their relationship by folding their suburban tent and emigrating to Paris, where she imagines that she will get a high-paying secretarial job at a government office and Frank will be free to find the vocation that truly suits him--to find himself, as it were. This folly of a dream, which Frank embraces until better opportunities present themselves, sustains a brief resurgence in their lives, constructed entirely around their silly delight in the surprised responses of their conservative friends and the delusion that they have somehow escaped their trap, even as they’re still living in it.
Reuniting DiCaprio and Winslet for the first time since they played star-crossed lovers in James Cameron’s unapologetic romantic epic Titanic (1997) has a certain enjoyable perversity to it (although much better was Danny DeVito’s reuniting of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, the stars of Romancing the Stone, in The War of the Roses, his bitter black comedy about the violence of divorce). Given their talent, it was inevitable that DiCaprio and Winslet’s scenes together, particularly the fights, would have a raw power to them, and when their characters are fully unleashed the film burns with a sense of unbridled rage. Yet, their histrionics ultimately feel mechanical because their characters are so familiar in their pain and broadly drawn in their misery, albeit without any meaningful backstory. This extends to the Wheelers’ neighbors, Shep and Milly Campbell (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), who are enacting their own dance of denial, with Shep secretly lusting after April while playing best bud with Frank and Milly hysterically agreeing with everything her alpha-male husband says.
Outside of a few nuanced turns here and there (particularly a bout of awkward martini-fueled adultery between Frank and a new secretary), there is virtually no subtlety to be found. Visually, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) emphasize dull grays, bleached whites, and desaturated hues in both the Wheelers’ home and Frank’s cubicle job as an office machine salesman, and whenever they need some rugged color they stage a scene in a wooded lot across the street, which brings in the rawness of nature to reflect the film’s ragged emotions. The characters are similarly obvious, whether it be Kathy Bates toodle-doo performance as the Wheelers’ eternally cheery (read: repressed) real-estate agent and pop-in-the-back-door neighbor or her psychologically imbalanced adult son (Michael Shannon), whose derangement gives him the much-needed freedom to rage against the machine and conveniently state the film’s themes, just in case we haven’t gotten them already. This is not to say that there isn’t any truth in them or that some of it doesn’t sting, but there is too much obviousness and too little nuance to make this particular road worth traversing again.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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