Maybe it’s the economic environment we’re in now, but I found it extremely difficult to sympathize with Revolutionary Road’s Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett), a married couple contending with the claustrophobic suffocation of suburban life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the damning-of-suburbia genre — I’m a firm believer that suburbia is slowly bringing about the death of America through homogenization, overconsumption, the proliferation of chain restaurants, and eternal same-sameness (I say this even after shoveling snow this morning in time with the rest of the neighborhood’s shovelers, as though in synch with a Danny Elfman score). I have a deathly fear of one day waking up in a room full of merchandise from Sharper Image/Brookstone, shuffling through a monotonous routine of Starbucks, cubicle, Subway, cubicle, and Applebees before witlessly falling asleep beneath the blue-flicker of Leno’s Daily Headlines, snug in my monogrammed department-store pajamas. (If that ever happens, you have my permission to stab me to death with an ice pick from Williams Sonoma (preferably in my sleep)).
Still, during a time in America when suburbia seems to be crumbling in on itself, as suburban couples are dealing with the loss of employment and falling housing prices while clinging to a little of that same-sameness they once had as the neighborhood falls down around them, a movie where comfort and security and promotions and steak and potatoes every night at six sharp represent real psychological horrors … well, it seems a little callous. Maybe it sounds hypocritical, but I don’t think this is a great time to be kicking Middle American ideals while they are in their death throes, even if Revolutionary Road is set in a much more economically stable 1950s. Two kids, a comfortable living, a nice house, and neighbors you can actually trust your children with for a few hours while you got out and get a beer doesn’t sound that bad, does it? Yet it is exactly that which is weighing down the Wheelers, a happy, content couple in public, but one that behind closed doors is suffering the torment of a 9-5 lifestyle, as though it were a loan shark they are paying interest on to, waiting in a perpetual sense of dread for the principal to come due and the heavies to break their legs.
But we all make choices, don’t we? And Frank and April made choices to get married too early, to have a family, and to move into that picket-fence life before they’d gotten life out of their systems. But rather than work to make do, or finagle themselves into a lifestyle they’d prefer (think of all those Eisenhower era opportunities!), they fuck people they don’t love, self-hate themselves into oblivion, and tear each other down, blaming one another for the consequences of their own choices. Maybe this is not the professional thing to say, or appropriate for a movie review, but: Boo fucking hoo.
Granted, Revolutionary Road isn’t a bad movie, nor should it be with the level of talent or the source material involved (Richard Yates’ remarkable 1962 novel). The movie is technically flawless — DiCaprro and Winslett act up a storm, and Mendes direction is perfect. A little too perfect, actually. Revolutionary Road feels like a movie that went from the novel to the storyboard to the screen flawlessly, but then again, there’s no messiness to cling to. In a technical sense, Revolutionary Road is kind of that perfect friend you hate — it’s too well done, too meticulous. Even the arguments between the Wheelers feel too controlled — Mendes has so perfectly constructed Revolutionary Road that he’s sucked the life out of the story. It’s impossible to really feel for the characters because they have no soul — they’re just perfectly dressed vessels who hit all the marks and deliver their lines perfectly — hell, even their mussed hair looks perfectly tussled.
It’s a simple narrative, one where the Yates’ complex thematic layers should’ve risen to the surface, but there were no gaps in the construction of the movie for them to sneak through. Frank works a lousy job in a cubicle, bored with his life. April is an aspiring actress trapped in the life of a 1950s housewife. They’re suffocating beneath the weight of American idealism, determined to believe that they are less ordinary than their ordinary lives and their ordinary neighbors and their ordinary jobs. They want badly to escape it all, so April hatches a plan — Frank will quit his job, and they will sell their house, and they will move to Paris, where she will work as a secretary and Frank will “find himself,” though there’s never much indication that there’s anything really there to “find” except for more ordinariness. The idea of the plan, more really than the plan itself (which is hastily conjured and fairly unrealistic) wakes them from their doldrums. They get excited about their lives. Frank tells his co-workers he’s leaving to start a new life; they eagerly inform their neighbors, all smug in their belief that they are going to leave those simpletons with the house and their cars and their comfortable monotony behind.
But they never make it to Paris. Frank can’t resist the lure of a promotion and more money, which he thinks will buy him the life he’s always wanted, while April conceives a child, threatening to throw her deeper into the life she hates. They take their self-hate out on one another, which all leads to a conclusion that probably felt more dramatic, more believable, and more unexpected in 1962, when the book was published.
But the frustration and yearning in Yates’ book doesn’t translate onto the screen, in part because it doesn’t really feel like Winslett and DiCaprio inhabit their characters. It’s too dismissive to say that they walk through the motions because they walk through them so well. It’s as if they were giving Mendes exactly what he wanted, but Mendes never asked for a little goddamn spirit. I never felt like Winslett’s character was sad, I just felt like Winslett was acting sad — and man alive, was she doing it well. DiCaprio and Winslett put on an acting clinic, and that’s exactly what it felt like: A clinic. You could almost hear the acting students in the audience scribbling notes. Everything was perfect, except their eyes — you couldn’t seen anything beneath them.
Lookit: I wanted to love Revolutionary Road. It contained two of my favorite themes: Suburban monotony and adultery, as well as a director and two actors I respect considerably. And I almost don’t even want to blame them for the failures of the film. It was a well-oiled machine, and they pushed all the buttons at the right times. Unfortunately, the light just never came on. But hell: Maybe, in this economy, we should just be happy someone’s still getting paid to operate the machinery.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives withi his wife and son in Portland, Maine You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.
Revolutionary Road / Dustin Rowles
Film | January 9, 2009 | Comments ()