Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Revolutionary Road

A variation of this review was also posted here at The Feminist Review.

In 1997, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio changed the face of cinema history by starring in the highest grossing film of all time, Titanic. Despite its expensively hokey exterior, Titanic demonstrated that DiCaprio and Winslet have talent to burn and mutually possess an intimate, intense chemistry that keeps audiences coming back for more. Following the success of the picture, both actors skyrocketed to superstar level fame, but neither one of them succumbed to the pressure by rarely appearing in mediocre work. Instead, each one continues to flourish as an artist by choosing their material wisely and challenging themselves with difficult characters.

Needless to say, their time apart from one another has been fruitful; both actors have earned critical success as well as multiple Oscar nominations since their pairing. The parts they’ve played over the past eleven years have ultimately helped in preparing them for the two most demanding characters of their careers thus far: Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. As a pair of nobodies who think they’re somebody’s in the 1950’s, Frank and April are coming to terms with the fact that they’re living the same suburban lie as everyone around them. On an individual level, April is dealing with the unhappy housewife syndrome (which would later be ordained the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan) while Frank grapples with the loss of masculinity in the mindless workaday business world. In their reunion film, Winslet and DiCaprio are full-blown adults that are struggling to find the beauty within themselves, their relationship, and the stagnant society surrounding them.

Revolutionary Road is based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same name by Richard Yates. Though the movie is somewhat plot-less, it revolves around Frank and April: a pair of nobodies who think they‘re somebodies living the same 1950s suburban lie as everyone else around them. By meandering through their life decisions, the now thirty-something couple find themselves settled down with two kids in a house with a white picket fence on the prestigiously middle class Revolutionary Road.

Seven years later, Frank and April now battle their individual demons by making each other miserable. They constantly fight, bicker, and moan, but never really do anything to make their lives or relationship better. Ultimately, the lack of communication and understanding within their world leads to disastrous consequences.

A filmed adaptation of the book has been in the coming-and-going stage of creation since the rights were bought in the 1960’s. Though, if you ask me, they should have let it stew a bit more on the page before bringing it to cinematic life.

Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of such films as American Beauty and Road to Perdition, was the wrong director to helm this project. Revolutionary Road suffers from the same bombastic arrogance that plagues the small-town America depicted in American Beauty. Both films are about contemplation and maturity, but there’s absolutely no sense of that within the film’s visual or thematic subtext. Each character is constantly spouting what they’re thinking without really thinking about what they‘re saying or feeling. Frank and April feel good about themselves because they understand the societal trap they’re inside, but they won’t do anything about it. Frank is afraid of the failure he may face if he leaves it and April is afraid of leaving Frank’s shadow, afraid of actually being April instead of Mrs. Frank Wheeler. The film itself is afraid to take flight and actually make a statement about the society April and Frank live in.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t raise any potent issues and questions. Though presented like quarrels between children playing house, Frank and April’s tit-for-tat arguments with each other do address the surface level problems in the era’s middle class lifestyle. Gender roles, abortion, infidelity, and martyrdom are all nicely compressed into the film, but even those facets are too watered down and neutral to make a significant impact. Ultimately, it’s not the melodramatic potboilers that make Revolutionary Road compelling to watch, it’s the fear every single character possesses.

An “Oscar” film contender at its core, Revolutionary Road doesn’t succeed in influencing our cultural understanding of 1950s Americana. We’ve seen it all before and in much better place (Peyton Place, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, Harriet Craig, The Best of Everything, The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History). What you will get out of Revolutionary Road is the pleasure of seeing three absolutely terrific performances by Kate Winslet (who was robbed of her nomination), Leonardo DiCaprio, and relative newcomer Michael Shannon, who steals the show in his limited time on screen. Coupled with Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography, the performances are what make Revolutionary Road worth watching.