The talented English stage director Sam Mendes has made another movie
that focuses, like his earlier American Beauty, on stateside
suburban discontent. This time his source is Richard Yates' acclaimed
1961 novel Revolutionary Road, whose action
takes place in 1955. The movie reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
(now Mendes' wife), for the first time since Titanic, which
turned both of them into big stars. All of which makes this a movie
well worth seeing, and DiCaprio and Winslet, seasoned and proven now,
give intense, balls-out performances, as do several in the supporting
cast, especially the edgy character actor Michael Shannon. It doesn't
all quite work as a movie. Despite performances that are a knockout,
the movie feels perfect, yet empty. The novel, however, is a stunner,
and even delivered in this skeletal, overly theatrical form, the story
leaves you with plenty to think about.
Road is a passionate indictment of the roles of men and women in
mid-century America and the conformism and lack of imagination imposed
by the prevailing institutions. Familiar topics perhaps, but Yates'
treatment of them is a seminal one. This will show you where "women's
lib" came from. A memorable if artificial shot of an army of men
marching down into Grand Central to work in Manhattan, all of them in
hats, underlines the prevalent sense that middle class white men were
as imprisoned as their spouses in their gray flannel suits, their air
conditioned nightmare, their outer-directed conformity from which the
only escapes were the liquid lunch of tee many martoonies and the quick
rolls in the hay with sad little secretaries. The movie is good at capturing
the outward shell, but not very successful at penetrating within. The
Fifties can be dangerous ground for younger filmmakers, who have trouble
seeing beyond the shiny cars and jaunty jazz.
perhaps more insidious, defense was irony and detachment. Frank Wheeler
(Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks refuge there, while dabbling in martinis and
secretaries too. He pretends to disdain his copy-writing job with a
business machine company. For this same company his father worked for
decades, unnoticed by executives, as a New Jersey sales representative.
Frank, despite his disdain, which implies he envisions still better
for himself, is on the way to a materially better life than his Willy
Loman father. At thirty he drives a Buick, has this decent job, and
lives with his pretty blonde wife and their two young kids in a pretty
house in Connecticut with lots of lawn. Their neighbor, Mrs. Helen Givings
(Kathy Bates), the real estate agent who sold them the house, thinks
them a lovely couple. When April (Winslet) was dating Frank, she thought
him the most interesting, different, adventurous man she'd ever met.
They think of themselves as detached from their surroundings: intelligent,
creative. He has spoken of living in Paris. She fancies herself as an
But nothing works, because April and Frank are only pretending to be
better than their surroundings and are both quite ordinary. The couple
comes on scene with a major row after April has starred in an amateur
play production that is a flop. In the novel, the performance of the
play, and April's evident pain as it disintegrates around her, are described
in excruciating detail, but the movie skips all that and cuts to the
drive home. What is surprising is how mean and accusatory Frank is.
He originally thought of nice and comforting things to say to April
about the play, but that's all in the book, not the movie.
cooks up the plan of moving to Paris. They will sell the house and the
car. She has heard secretaries for international organizations get high
salaries in Paris. She'll work to support them (presumably with a nanny
for the kids) while Frank discovers himself. Frank very reluctantly
gives in, and they go ahead with plans to move. April reassures the
children they'll survive with fewer toys and new friends. The Givings
bring their son John (Shannon), who's been in a mental institution,
and while the Paris idea shocks his parents, he congratulates Frank
and April on their decision to escape from the boredom of middle-class
America. Then something happens, and it all falls apart.
is not an attractive person. He has neither talent nor character, and
takes unconvincing refuge in being a smart-ass. He's a rotter, condescending
toward his wife, a liar, a man too full of himself to possess self-awareness.
DiCaprio embraces and embodies all that. The role of April is harder
because she's repressed, hiding. Her earlier enthusiasm for Frank as
the most interesting person she's met becomes pathetic when it's revealed
to have been so mistaken. Ultimately the movie has trouble working as
a movie because both its main characters are hollow shells. It would
take a lot of prose (which is found in Yates' novel) to fill in substance
around these shells.
screenplay captures the main movements of the novel. But the exquisite
cinematic detail of Roger Deakins' photography, the precisely correct-to-period
drapes, rugs, couches, suits, hats, and so forth, down to the overly-interesting
artworks on the Wheeler walls, only distract from the intense interactions.
Must quite so many cigarettes be lit, cocktail glasses of gin quaffed?
The movie's devastating scenes from a marriage would work better as
a play with simple sets, without sprinklers and lawns and Buicks and
Grand Central. Sam Mendes, as a stage director, may have miscalculated
in seeing the screenplay as a series of intense scenes of dialogue and
not perceiving how the movie-work surrounding these scenes of dialogue
would undermine them. The cocktail glasses and period furniture don't
make up for the loss of psychological analysis.
©2009 Chris Knipp