Nothing ‘Revolutionary’ with Kate and Leo’s return

revroad

Director Sam Mendes does not seem to be a big fan of the suburbs. Between his latest film Revolutionary Road and 1999’s American Beauty, Mendes picks at the scabs of suburbia, allowing viewers to gaze at all that oozes from it.

Like Beauty, Road focuses on a couple whose relationship luster is fading fast, as youthful aspirations fall wayside to the compromises of adulthood. But where the former film dealt with the struggles of a modern day, middle-aged couple, Road focuses on a ’50s-era husband and wife (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) at the earlier stages of their domesticity. And for those fans looking forward to the romantic pairing of the leads from a certain movie about a big boat, let’s just say they had it easy with the iceberg compared to what they put themselves through here.

Frank (DiCaprio) and April’s (Winslet) life certainly begins storybook enough – meeting at a social event, eyes locking across a crowded, smoky room and soon settling into cookie-cutter suburbia to raise a couple of rugrats. Frank, the breadwinner, dutifully goes to a job in which the only perk for him is that it allows him to “swim” in the secretarial pool from time to time. April, meanwhile, struggles with the fact that her acting dreams have been dashed and puts on a Douglas Sirk-sized smile as she attempts to conform to her role as Happy Housewife.

As April grabs at some sort of identity outside the home, Frank half-heartedly goes along for the ride, agreeing to flee to Paris, where she thinks they can start anew and she can be their sole support system. The vision is as childishly executed as it sounds, with no real plan or vision as to what will happen once they arrive (we never see the couple attempt to even learn the language). We spend more time with them telling everyone they’re giving their American Dream lifestyle the big kiss-off, rather than actually preparing for their future life. When that dream dies on the vine, their world begins to implode.

Revolutionary Road is based on an acclaimed 1961 novel by Richard Yates, which, at the time, might have been seen as groundbreaking, as most domestic images of the time were that of the Cleaver clan. But today, the film seems already dated. Gone is the slightest trace of wit (albeit for one supporting character) that Yates infused in his novel, and it’s pretty much a given now that the media-fueled visions of the perfect family were usually anything but. Viewers are thrust into their relationship mid-tempest, and there is hardly any trace of love that was ever shared between the two. Even their children are used as props, both figuratively and literally, as they vanish from the picture for conveniently long stretches.

The result is like being invited over to the neighborhood home of a querulous couple, as you sit awkwardly counting the minutes until you can excuse yourself to relieve the babysitter. Under Mendes’ direction, the couple never becomes an actual “couple,” just sounding boards for each other’s frustrations.

The only character who is halfway interesting is John (played by the excellent Michael Shannon), a neighbor’s son, fresh from a mental institution, who delights in exposing the couple’s flaws and hidden truths to their life together. Also to the film’s credit is production designer Kristi Zea who captures the suburban sterility in almost every scene within the home.

But despite the effective histrionics of Leo and Kate – which feel more like Oscar-clip reels than part of a cohesive narrative – the film is never the deeply moving, personal character study it wants to by. Directors Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows) and  Nicholas Ray (Bigger Than Life, Rebel Without a Cause) covered the same dirt-under-the-astroturf territory decades ago, when it felt more dangerous to do so. Hell, even the Brady Bunch got in on it in their 1995 film. 

Exposing the lack of conformity of ’50s wedded bliss today carries none of the same impact. We are closing in on the second decade of the new millennium, and I think it’s pretty well established that the image of the “perfect family” was a myth. Viewers can simply tune into AMC’s expertly crafted Mad Men each week to witness a much more colorful, developed expose of the era’s seamier side instead a dead-end drive down this Road.

~ by usesoapfilm on January 12, 2009.

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