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.