Revolutionary Road

I’ve never cared much for the cinema of suburban angst, although I do recognize that some pretty good films have been made in that genre in the last few years. Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, even Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt are excellent examples of good films that explore the desperate underside of the American middle class. The problem is that I grew up in that milieu and I don’t find it an interesting setting for a film.

Revolutionary Road is the second time that Sam Mendes has worked this tree lined street. American Beauty can be put with the three films I mentioned above, a great film about a subject that I don’t really find interesting. I don’t think Revolutionary Road is a great film. There are too many flaws, a puzzling subplot that goes nowhere here, a character who is too obviously brought in to provide commentary on the situation there drag the film down to merely good. What saves it, of course, are the two leads.

Frank Wheeler, played by Leonardo DiCaprio is a thirty year old junior executive in the marketing department of a business machine manufacturer. This is the fifties, during the height of the post war boom. Frank is smart and fancies himself destined for better things. When he was younger, just out of the army, and working as a longshoreman in New York city, he met April, played by Kate Winslet, who was equally smart with acting ambitions. They married, had two kids and moved to the suburbs. Now both of them see themselves as trapped. One day April comes up with a plan to get out of their situation. They’ll move to Paris where she’ll get a job as a secretary with the foreign service, giving Frank the space to figure out what he wants to do with his immense abilities and driving ambition. Frank agrees and they start making arrangements to move in the fall. But as the summer wears on, things start turning around for Frank at work and then April becomes pregnant again.

Sam Mendes has always been a good director with actors and this is no exception. But he is also learning to tell stories with the other tools that film offers. Many of the scenes are slightly overexposed, showing the blandness of Frank’s existence. What I really liked was the pace. Mendes has an old fashioned approach to storytelling. He gives himself room to develop the characters and show their motivation. The plot begins with a bad community theater production that April stars in. You can see her disappointment and frustration in her face. This experience sets off the whole plot. Justin Haythe’s script, adapting Richard Yates’s novel is brilliant.

But once again it is DiCaprio and Winslet who make this film. Neither Frank nor April are particularly likable characters but these performances draw you in, even as their actions repel you. DiCaprio has more pyrotechnics as the blustery Frank. Even as he’s loudly proclaiming that he wants to really feel things, you can see the doubt and the fear on his face. His indecision, as the choice before him gets more complicated is maddening, but you understand it.

Winslet’s performance is more understated but no less powerful. Her ambition dies that night during the play and she grabs the next available means of escape, her husband. After ten years, she must know Frank; she must know that her scheme is going to frighten him and that he’ll agree to it at first and then eventually find a reason to back out. But she’s desperate. None of that is spelled out in the film, but the fact that I can even speculate about it is testament to the subtlety of Winslet’s performance. What is clear is that April is cold and somewhat selfish. She loves her kids and is willing to sacrifice some for them, but not everything. There’s always something about her that she holds in reserve.

I guess my reaction to Revolutionary Road is the same as April’s. I admire the artistry and and craft of the film, but I just can’t love a story like this. I won’t buy it on DVD and I’ll probably never see it again.

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