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Monday, March 9, 2009

Review: Revolutionary Road (2008)


* * * *

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

You know what would be really, ahem, revolutionary? A movie about people who live in the suburbs and aren’t dead/dying inside. Surely there must exist some genuinely happy people out there whose manicured lawns aren’t representative of disillusionment and silent despair and whose spouse isn’t also their worst enemy and the destroyer of their dreams – or is that just a quaint, bourgeoisie notion? The first hurdle that Revolutionary Road must meet is the fact that its basic premise has already been explored to death. It’s a good film, but it is heavily burdened by outside forces that make it hard to judge in and of itself.

The Wheelers are special. Everyone says so and they themselves have bought into the hype, though the hard truth is that they are absolutely ordinary. They married and moved to the suburbs and had two children before the age of 30 and though they want more, they will never attain it. Frank’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) problem is that he lacks imagination, which is somewhat ironic given that he works in marketing for Knox Business Machines. He hates his job but doesn’t know how to escape it because he can’t think of anything else he can do. He aspires to nothing except not ending up like his father, who also worked for Knox. He has an affair with one of the secretaries that seems inspired less by passion than expectation: this is simply the sort of thing that men in his position do. He is absolutely and utterly conventional, even in the ways that he rebels against societal mores and values.

April (Kate Winslet) is in certain respects the opposite. She has ideas, she has plans for their escape, but she lacks the ability to follow through on her own. She has been anchored to suburbia by maternity and lack of opportunity. She once aspired to be an actress but lacks the talent and the time to devote herself to studying and making herself better. Because she has no income, no money of her own, she needs Frank in order to start over somewhere else – anywhere else, though she sets her mind to Paris. She has a plan: Frank will quit his job, they’ll sell their house and car and move to Paris, where they’ll live off their savings until April can get a secretarial position at an Embassy while Frank works at finding himself. It doesn’t take much for her to talk Frank around to this proposition, but his agreeing to it and actually doing it are two different things.

Regardless of Frank’s initial enthusiasm, the fact is that the Paris plan could never come to fruition because of his sensitivity regarding his manhood. Nothing sets him off like the accusation that he’s not a man, which is occasionally stated in a direct fashion (first by April at the beginning of the film, later by John Givings, the son of friends of the Wheelers who absolutely lacks a filter and says whatever, whenever) and at other times it is more couched in conversation, as when he explains the plan to other men and they question him about the logistics of it because, after all, what kind of man lets his wife support him? And even if Frank could go through with it, what then? There’s nothing about him which indicates that he’s capable of being anything other than a cog in a big corporate machine. The result, in all likelihood, is that they would be even more miserable in Paris because Frank would feel emasculated by his lack of work and embarrassed by his inability to “create,” and April would feel burdened by the responsibility of supporting him, which would leave her feeling even more weighted down than she does already.

The story and its study of middle class malaise is solid and although the performances are good (particularly that of Michael Shannon, nominated as Best Supporting Actor for playing John Givings) and the direction is sound, making the most of the intense performances of DiCaprio and Winslet, I find myself wishing that it had been made, say, 30 years ago and by different people (which I suppose it would have to be, though the idea of 4-year-old DiCaprio and 3-year-old Winslet tackling this material is somewhat amusing) if only to escape all the baggage that invariably gets brought into it. I mean, Sam Mendes directing a film about suburban disaffection? American Beauty. Kate Winslet playing a distressed housewife? Little Children. An inspection of life behind the conservative veneer of post-WWII, pre-sexual revolution America? Mad Men. You just can’t get away from these things.

That being said, Revolutionary Road is a very good movie and its only real crime is bad timing. I don’t know if it will only need a few years or if it will take decades, but I do believe that at some point, when the trees can be separated out from the forest, this will be a film that stands apart and will be valued for what it achieves. It got lost in the shuffle of 2008 and buried in the zeitgeist, but it’s ripe for being “discovered” in the years to come.

4 comments:

Anh Khoi Do said...

Great review. Now that you say it, I'm also saying to myself that had the film been made thirty years ago (by different people, naturally), many critics and movie viewers would have said: "Fantastic! The topic that Revolutionary Road deals with is new for us."

With that said, I have never seen Mad Men, American Beauty and Little Children. Therefore, the thought of the film becoming predictable at its third quarter crossed my mind rather than the idea of a "bad timing". In other words, as long as the story is well written, I have no problem with the very popular topic that Revolutionary Road deals with. Besides, I also agree that the performance were intense.

Ridhi said...

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R. D. Finch said...

Norma, I've read such conflicting things about this movie that I was really grateful to hear your take on it. It confirmed some of the things I suspected from reading between the lines of other reviews. I'm always amused by these angst-in-the-suburbs movies. My experience growing up in such places is that they are places of stultifying conformity, boredom, and lack of imagination, not hotbeds of repressed dissatisfaction and furtive perversity.

I had real problems with "American Beauty," which struck me as the product of someone's overheated imagination, not experience. If it had been played for out-and-out satire, I might have responded better to it. But it seemed to want to be taken absolutely seriously as a BIG STATEMENT about suburban disaffection. Kevin Spacey struck me as just an overgrown, spoiled brat, not a tragic figure, the Willy Loman of Suburbia. I liked "Little Children" a lot better, but then it had more variety in its themes--and Kate Winslet too.

Have you ever seen Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment" (1957)? It's the granddaddy of this type of film and just as contrived--soap masquerading as significance. That said, your review still makes me want to see "RR." It sounds like an interesting and believable variation on what has become almost a genre, the cast is most appealing, and there's no question Mendes is a very good director.

Norma Desmond said...

@Anh Khoi Do: I've never read the book, but I understand that at the time of its publication it caused quite a stir because stories like it weren't told very often, or at least not in such a direct way. If a film version had come out sooner and was as strong as the Mendes-Winslet-DiCaprio version, it would probably be hailed as an American classic.

I agree that a well written film should be able to overcome any "been there, done that" feelings.

@R.D.: I've never seen No Down Payment but I'll add that to my list of films to check out. RR is definitely worth seeing primarily because of the way the characters' disaffection is treated: they think it makes them special, but the film itself recognizes that it just makes them like everyone else.

As for American Beauty, while I think that film has its moments, there is a troubling thread of misogyny running through it that has always bothered me.