Thursday, January 29, 2009

Revolutionary Road: Long and grinding

Revolutionary Road (2008) • View trailer for Revolutionary Road
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual content and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.09
Buy DVD: Revolutionary Road • Buy Blu-Ray: Revolutionary Road [Blu-ray]

The moral of novelist Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, as presented by director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe, is that one had better be content with comfortable stability ... even if it can be perceived as boring or soul-deadening.

Rocking that boat — unwisely daring to believe in dreams of greener pastures — only leads to heartbreak. And much worse.
Freshly moved into their gorgeous suburban Connecticut home — rather large
for their (we assume) still limited means, but hey, that's Hollywood — and
armed with the ubiquitous cocktail and suffused with the glow of youthful
idealism, the newly married Frank and Kate Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and
Kate Winslet) vow never to become "ordinary," like all their obviously
unexceptional neighbors. Better to expect the sun to rise in the west and set
in the east, as the mill wheel of life in this film wears them down over time.

A sadly cynical view, and a heartbreaking film. But not, ultimately, a very persuasive one.

Although clearly intended as a 1950s-era bookend to his deliciously scathing indictment of the very late 20th century in 1999's Academy Award-winning American Beauty, Mendes fails to provide an all-important consistent tone in this new film. American Beauty succeeded because playwright Alan Ball's arch script dealt with a slightly exaggerated portrait of real life: one just warped enough to turn contemporary culture — and the roles we play — into a dark, perceptively pointed farce.

Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, is unrelentingly realistic ... except when it isn't. And that's a serious problem.

In terms of Yates' view that the so-called "Fabulous Fifties" were hardly as peacefully bucolic as sentiment would have it (unless one were white and wealthy), this story actually bears a much more striking resemblance to 2002's Far from Heaven, wherein Julianne Moore's initially complacent house wife found her marriage — indeed, her entire world — rent asunder by racism and her husband's unexpected brand of infidelity.

The difference is that Moore's character becomes a better person as a result of perceiving the hypocrisy of her environment, and then embracing the diversity her previously sheltered existence had denied: She accepts the outside world in all its complexity.

Frank and Kate Wheeler, in great contrast, retreat from the wider world and then destroy each other from within; their eventual fate is their own fault.

Doubly so, because they fail to avoid the so-called "conventional" lifestyles that they mock after first meeting, and then marrying, as idealistic twentysomethings.

We're introduced to Frank and Kate (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, reuniting for the first time since Titanic) well into their marital crisis, as angry words hurl back and forth, wholly at odds with the quiet charm of their suburban Connecticut home.

The problem is role-playing: The artistic Kate can't stand the drudgery of housework, and being cooped up all day, with no outlet but the prospect of socializing with other, similarly trapped women ... all of whom smoke and drink too much when they do get together. But even here, early on, Mendes seems to overplay his hand: Watching Kate pull out the trash can while wearing a dress and low heels seems less an observation about the way she feels she must present herself in public, and more a snarky echo of Barbara Billlingsley's equally overstated wardrobes on television's Leave It to Beaver.

For his part, Frank joins the hundreds of similarly hatted and newspaper-reading husbands who train into "the city" for assembly-line office jobs, in his case on the 15th floor of the Knox Building, where his vaguely defined responsibilities merely fill time on either side of his two-martini lunches.

Frank also indulges in an afternoon affair with a willing young secretary — Zoe Kazan, as the deliciously voluptuous Maureen — before we've had a chance to form an opinion of him.

The tryst seems no more than a reflex action — something else expected of him, like the wife and two kids in the suburbs — and Frank's quick departure from Maureen's apartment is cruelly, jaw-droppingly abrupt. The depth of emotion on Kazan's face, in response, is as revealing as the body she can't quite conceal beneath the bedclothes:

She realizes that she has, in effect, been used as a prostitute ... without getting paid.

Naive innocence vanishes in a trace, to be replaced by something far more calculating: This won't be the last time we see Maureen.

Fleeting flashbacks detail the night Frank and Kate met, the subsequent whirlwind courtship and marriage, all presented in deft cinematic shorthand punctuated by the clever utilization of period music.

But we get nothing in between, and therefore no sense of how the idealistic Frank and Kate morphed into their disheartened older selves, after scarcely a decade.

(Frank's crisis comes on his 30th birthday: a milestone that might have been significant in the 1950s, but certainly doesn't resonate the same way today.)

Kate, desperately trying to recall why they were happier back in the day, proposes a radical solution: that they abandon everything and move — lock, stock and children — to Paris. Blessed with language skills, she can take a high-paying job as a government secretary, thus freeing Frank from the obligation to put money in the bank any old way, and giving him a chance to truly discover what inspires him, and then build a profession upon it.

Although initially reluctant, Frank eventually embraces the concept; they buy the plane tickets, start packing and tell all their friends and neighbors.

But conformity isn't about to let go of them quite that easily.

The major problem with this film — mostly with Haythe's script — is its absence of backstory, and particularly how that impacts Frank's character and behavior. (Obviously, such issues are handled better in Yates' novel.) Frank is two-faced to a degree that makes him seem bi-polar: loving and accommodating one moment, a raging tyrant the next. Indeed, most of the time he's a complete bastard, and pretty much impossible to like, admire or sympathize with to any degree.

DiCaprio does his best to bring out Frank's more vulnerable side, but even his considerable acting talent can't climb that mountain. And we've really no idea why he has become so nasty; being a rote cog in the Knox machine isn't sufficient justification for the abominable way he treats both his wife and Maureen.

More to the point, we've no idea what Frank would prefer to be: no sense of any secret longing, no indication of hobbies that might suggest artistic talent. Why, then, is he entitled to so much angst?

And every time the story allows Frank a hint of vulnerability, enough that we consider the possibility of feeling sorry for the guy, the script tosses in another crisis that once again turns him into a monster. The third-act plot hiccup, in particular, evokes an eye-opening response that (once again) may be a knee-jerk product of its time, but it sends Frank so far beyond reasonable behavior that DiCaprio has no hope of resurrecting the man's gentler qualities.

Actually, that's another problem with this film: its failure to provide context. Yates wrote his book in 1961, at a time when the details and analysis of its 1950s setting would be familiar to all readers. Mendes' film comes along half a century later, and he simply cannot assume — as he does — that so many of these post-WWII cultural signposts will be understood and readily embraced by modern viewers. They aren't, to the serious detriment of the story he tells, and the points he wishes to make.

At this distant remove, Revolutionary Road is an historical document, and one that demands the same contextual information dump that would be provided in a film set in (for example) the 1920s.

Winslet, fortunately, has an easier time with her portrayal of Kate. Her building panic over being so constricted remains consistent; her increasing desperation to bring sparkle back into her life — back in the day, she trained as an actress — is the logical result of seeing her options being removed, one by one. As always, Winslet effortlessly holds a scene, even when silent; her bravely stoic reaction, as a social gathering crumbles around Kate, is shattering.

But as with DiCaprio, Winslet can't quite sell Kate's insane mood shifts: the raw, naked venom she spews at Frank one day, which is replaced by a wan, wifely smile and a query about how he wants his eggs the following morning. Frank can't help but blink in confusion; so do we. What are we to make of such crazy behavior?

Then, too, a more superficial but equally annoying question: Where the heck are Frank and Kate's two children, during most of this movie? They're inserted, like token pets, into a few early scenes, but wholly absent during the frequent emotional meltdowns that occupy the film's bulk. That's just ... daft.

Kathy Bates has a marvelously subtle supporting role as Mrs. Givings, the local busybody and Realtor who sells the Wheelers their (supposed) piece of the American dream. Michael Shannon is sensational as her adult son, John Givings, whose mental illness prompts an initially amusing but eventually horrifying level of candor that punctures Frank and Kate's outward veneers. (It's an old cliché, but still an engaging one: The insane guy is the sanest guy in the room.)

The film's production values are superb. Production designer Kristi Zea really nails the period trappings, from the crisply quiet suburban neighborhood to the daily train station jam and even the cigarette-hazed café where Frank routinely lunches with his cubicle mates. Roger Deakins' cinematography is luxurious, his clever use of slightly washed-out pastels an echo of the absence of vibrancy in the Wheelers' lives.

But Mendes' film ultimately lacks the emotional wallop of Yates' novel, instead feeling more like an exhausting shouting match between Frank and Kate: a contrived setting in which to score points off each other, the way the characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf set each other up for cutting one-liners.

Mutual cruelty as sport.

Hardly what Yates intended.

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