‘Revolutionary Road’: The road not taken

December 24, 2008

“If being crazy means living life as if it matters, I don’t care if they think we’re completely insane.”

So says April Wheeler, as played by Kate Winslet in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road,” the devastating film adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel. She’s talking to her husband, Frank, played by Leonardo DiCaprio – but he’s not really listening.

The film is directed by Sam Mendes, who also looked at the dark side of suburban life in the Oscar-winning “American Beuaty.” It reunites Winslet and DiCaprio for the first time since “Titanic,” playing a decidedly less starry-eyed couple.

Set in the mid-1950s, the story is about the dreams these two would-be bohemians had for themselves – and how children, a job and a house in Connecticut cut those short. Feeling trapped in a life they never meant to have, April convinces Frank that he should quit his job and they should move the family to Paris so he can find himself.

At first Frank is eager – if uncertain – about plunging into the unknown. But April’s enthusiasm – her conviction that the pair of them are destined for bigger, more important things than a confining suburban existence – wins Frank over. Absolutely, he says – Paris is where he’ll really figure out what he should be doing with his life.

Then his lackluster office job in Manhattan suddenly gains a little sparkle – both because of an affair with a cute secretary (Zoe Kazan) and because the big boss suddenly offers the indifferent Frank a promotion and a raise. And when April announces that she’s pregnant, Frank is ready to toss the Paris fantasy on the trash heap. But April, who has no interest in a third child, is not so easily dissuaded.

Yates was a similar dreamer, one who put aside romantic images of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the “Lost Generation” of Paris in the 1920s to settle down to a life of marital misery, seasoned with his own alcoholism and obsessiveness about his writing. In 1961, the Beats were just going mainstream; eventually, their ethos would inspire the hippies, the counterculture, the whole “Tune in, turn on, drop out” counter-culture, which were all still a distant blur on the horizon.

In that sense, “Revolutionary Road” was a prescient forerunner of the sensibility that streams through TV’s “Mad Men” with such brutal hindsight. The characters in this film suffer a dual pull – toward the conformity of suburban life, with its status-conscious materialism, and toward the culture of self-awareness, which rejects all those same things.

As in the book, the avatar of the new ideas is John Givings (Michael Shannon), son of the real-estate woman, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), who sold the Wheelers their home. Helen asks April if she can bring John by for tea; he’s a former mathematician who has been institutionalized for psychological problems. A social outing from the hospital will do him good, Helen pleads.

But his biggest problem, as becomes clear during his furlough to the Wheelers’ house, is John’s inability to mask his real feelings, to participate in polite conversation without saying what he actually thinks. At first, the Wheelers find this refreshing; after all, they too feel straitjacketed by the self-censorship of the suburban existence.

But when Frank decides he can’t go along with the Paris fantasy, John’s next visit turns practically biblical. He sees through the pretense of civility and digs at the open wound in their relationship, nearly provoking a fistfight with Frank.

This is a movie about dreams and disillusionment, acted to near perfection by Winslet – who looks like a blonde dream – and DiCaprio, who has the appearance of a high-school athlete gone slightly to seed but still skating by on his looks. Their inability to communicate becomes like a third character in the relationship, eating away at both of them.

Mendes’ film is coolly beautiful, shot with the kind of shiny plastic surfaces that characterized the decade. Occasionally something crabbed or ugly peeks through – such as the visits by John Givings. He’s like a prophet of doom, saying exactly what he thinks and damn the niceties.

DiCaprio captures the desperation of a man who thinks he knows what he wants – but doesn’t really. All he knows is that he doesn’t want things to move so fast – and his only coping mechanism is rage.

By contrast, Winslet seems to grow calmer and more resolved as April grows increasingly unhappy. Where DiCaprio’s Frank slams the door on his own perceptions, Winslet’s April seems to actually visualize the chasm suddenly yawning between them. In her eyes, you can see both the hurt and the resolution that Frank will never understand. It is the year’s most stunning and understated performance.

“Revolutionary Road” is a contemporary tragedy, a film with powerful performances and strong themes that never hammers you over the head with either. It’s my choice as best film of 2008, a masterful adaptation of a literary classic.

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