January 14, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Explain to me again why I had to stay in the water
and you got to float on the piece of wood?

Grade: B +

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, and Kathryn Hahn

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

It’s fair to consider whether director Sam Mendes’ 2008 adaptation of Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates’ acclaimed 1961 assault on 1950s Eisenhowerian conformity, risks looking anachronistic when viewed through time’s rear-view mirror. The conceits of stifling suburbia and middle-class malaise have been explored in film, using milieus both dated (Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven; the television series Mad Men) and recent (Mendes’ own American Beauty and the Kate Winslet-starring Little Children).

Yet, while elaborating on his novel as “an indictment of the 1950s,” Yates lambasted the decade’s “general lust for conformity all over this country ... a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.” Sound familiar? The “outright betrayal of our best and brightest revolutionary spirit” that Yates attached to the ’50s is just as applicable to the waning days of our current decade. In Yates’ narrative, neighbors look upon Frank and April Wheeler’s shining house on a hill with admiration and envy, unable to see the domestic rot eating away from the inside out. You might expect this sort of gloomy critique would attract a director like Lars von Trier; as it stands, it’s also not surprising coming from the British-born Mendes.

Indeed, in an ironic reversal of the spirit of 1776, a seeming solution for the Wheelers’ familial strife comes when April (Winslet), a frustrated actress and desperate housewife, fancifully proposes that she, her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and their two children should pull up stakes and move to Paris. There, April would provide for the family by working as a secretary at the U.S. Embassy while Frank “discovers” himself. 

While initially intrigued by the idea, Frank is unable and, perhaps, unwilling to part company with the corporate cubicle where he toils as an office machine salesman and settles for decent remuneration and the occasional “Attaboy” from his superiors. Instead, Frank assuages his festering despair with drink and taking an occasional dip in the secretarial pool, dalliances motivated less by carnal desire than his need to reclaim his eroded masculinity.

April’s unexpected third pregnancy finally thwarts the European sabbatical she sees as her last grasp at a fulfilled life, and, consequently, her home life with Frank continues its rapid downward spiral. Even as the frequency and ferocity of their incessant bickering increases, Frank and April’s public self-aggrandizement and private self-pity render them incapable of fully recognizing their perilous plummet. The only times they are confronted with the truth of their sorry situation come via the emotionally retarded son (Michael Shannon) of a local real estate agent (Kathy Bates), who acts as an unfiltered—and somewhat contrived—soothsayer during his uneasy visits with the Wheelers.

Here is where Revolutionary Road finds its most acute relevance—but not as political commentary or national symbolism. Rather, it’s an exposition on the tedium of middle-class existence. If the whole of human endeavor can be seen as a quest to alleviate boredom, the irony is that as we forge more avenues of escape, the more difficult it is to escape the trappings of convention. (My avocation as a film critic began as my own Parisian escape, prompted by both a love of cinema and the desire for a respite from my white-collar, workaday world.)

Where Yates’ narrative and Justin Haythe’s screenplay falters is positing the catch-22 facing Frank and April as between embracing antiseptic lives sustained by creature comforts or authentic lives full of blissful poverty. This is a false choice that ignores the practicality and even joy many gather from a steady livelihood that provides for your loved ones. Here, however, April’s children and looming pregnancy contribute to her suffocation, a cynical, albeit contextually honest, assessment.

DiCaprio continues to mature as an actor, his fresh face a thin mask for Frank’s insecurity, while Winslet, atop the list of today’s finest film actresses, offers a heartwrenching, virtuoso rendering of April’s sadness. Their casting is shrewdly provocative as they indirectly dissect the romantic mystique of their career-making roles as Jack and Rose in TitanicRevolutionary Road laments the loss of a time when we all dreamed of becoming “king of the world,” only to find ourselves sinking with the proverbial ship.

Neil Morris

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