Saturday, January 3, 2009

Revolutionary Road (***1/2)

Directed by Sam Mendes


Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road is a fondly remembered novel about marriage in the 1950's, and how quickly paradise can become purgatory. It's a biting story, critical of the average American's striving need to conform to societal stereotypes during the supposed happy-go-lucky times in the 50's. 47 years after it's publication, the novel is now a film, and its director, Sam Mendes does a very satisfying and bold job of making sure that the film in no way relents on the story's foreboding tone.

The story follows Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife April (Kate Winslet). They meet at a party, and roll away in passion: getting married, having children and moving into a home on Revolutionary Road. Frank gets a job as a salesman, and is quickly sucked into the life of an American working man, while April sits at home, slowly becoming disenfranchised with the direction of their lives, and how their existence lacks meaning. How did they lose the enthusiasm they had when they first met?

April comes up with an idea to rebuild their happiness: moving to Paris. There were times when Frank dreamed of living in Paris, and April believes that living there would help them discover the people they wanted to be. She would work as a Secretary and support the family, while Frank takes time to find what he really wants in life. Everything goes swimmingly until Frank begins feeling the pressure when his boss offers him a big promotion. Better to stay in a disappointing life where money is assured than move to Europe with uncertainty, right?

Another monkey wrench within the plot is the town real estate woman Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) and her troubled son John (Michael Shannon). John has had a rough go in the last couple of years after a few shock therapy treatments, and Helen thinks spending time with a modern couple his age will help him recoup. As he enters the lives of the Wheelers, it ends up the main illness he suffers from is honesty, effortlessly thrashing the lies and facades Frank and April work so hard to create. No one reveals their fates better than John.

Sam Mendes hit a home run (and the Oscar stage) with his first film, American Beauty, but has since struggled with properly executing his usually complicated visual motifs. Road To Perdition was gorgeous film to look at, but was an empty thematic experience, and Jarhead struggled to balance its harsh attitude with its solemn tone. Revolutionary Road is easily the best film Mendes has done since Beauty. It's his most fully-realized movie-going experience, even if certain aspects of the story seem a little off (the Wheeler children serve absolutely no purpose to the story whatsoever).

The screenplay, adapted from Yates' novel, was written by Justin Haythe with incredible attention to the sharp dialogue. The words Frank and April use against each other are as sharp as knives, and are much more damaging than any physical harm or adultery they may commit. Many have been turned off by the film's unpleasantness, and I believe that many could care less about the plight of the Wheelers in the economic times we live in today, but this film dissects the supposed happiness of the suburban home life so violently, it leaves an unbelievable effect.

Winslet and DiCaprio, reuniting for the first time since Titanic, are--no pun intended--revolutionary in their performances. It's a much more cynical view of Rose and Jack if they'd ever made if off the boat. Much like Frost/Nixon, the two performances work so well because they work together, supporting each other so efficiently that they completely inhabit the skin of the characters. It must be said, though, that in his few scenes, Michael Shannon's portrayal of John Givings stands toe-to-toe with the two of them--and wins.

Revolutionary Road was probably the most anticipated film of the year before the Fall season (ironically, most people won't be able to see it till 2009), but it quickly fell out of favor for most people who were expecting a Titanic recreation. What they get instead is a searing film about those who choose that ordinary is just not acceptable. It's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with less ferociousness, and more solemness.

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