Tuesday, February 10, 2009

440 - Revolutionary Road review

Revolutionary Hill Estates would be the place that dreams die if its residents had any worth mentioning. It’s a pristine slice of 1950’s suburbia, where the sun always shines brightly, the grass is green, and the adults are miserable. I can’t recall the last time I saw a film where the American Dream turned out to be such an American Nightmare, the pleasures of a 1st world lifestyle serving to imprison as much as they comfort.

Frank and April Wheeler are the protagonists of “Revolutionary Road,” an upper-middle class couple. The year is 1955, America is thriving, and the nuclear family is glowing brightly. They have two children that function more like pets than offspring, ancillary concerns to their thirst for purpose. Certainly, breeding hasn’t granted them satisfaction, nor has marriage or the acquisition of wealth.

Frank (Leonard DiCaprio) chafes against his misery but accepts it as the cost of life. He celebrates his 30th birthday with several martinis and an affair with a secretary. Does he have regrets about the way his life has turned out? Certainly, but he behaves as if refusing to give voice to these thoughts can make them disappear.

April (Kate Winslet) struggles to remain polite to their thoroughly uninteresting neighbors and friends, but unloads on Frank. Why are they so miserable, and what can they do about it? She argues that they need to pursue their dreams, but when pressed neither is capable of identifying a pursuit that interests them.

Their confusion is palpable, as is April’s intensifying hatred for Frank. What have they done so wrong, when everything about them looks exactly right from the outside? She has an idea: they’ll move to Paris. She’ll work as a secretary, he’ll screw around until he figures out what he wants to “do,” and they’ll be happy. Show me an individual who thinks moving will cause all of life’s problems to dissipate, and I’ll show you a fool.

One afternoon, a neighbor (Kathy Bates) brings over her son John (Michael Shannon) for a drink. John lives in a mental institution, and his mother hopes that contact with normal folks will do him some good. The man takes a glance at the Wheelers and recoils in disgust at their vapidity, but takes a shine to them when he learns they’re planning a move to Paris. At least they’re trying, right?

Alas, the fantasy doesn’t hold. Frank’s newfound boldness at work, the result of a lack of concern for career security, accidentally results in a promotion. At home, April discovers she’s pregnant, and now the Paris move is thrown out by Frank. The move might not have occurred anyway, and almost definitely wouldn’t have made them happy, but when you’re as miserable as they are, any gamble at happiness must seem like a necessary one.

DiCaprio and Winslet inhabit their roles effortlessly. We remember them as young lovers in “Titanic,” and in turn pity the characters they play here, who seem as if they have never had a happy day, and might not even recognize one should it occur. Michael Shannon’s two scenes are so effective that he scored the film’s sole major Oscar nomination as a man whose words speak truth as hatefully as is possible.

The film is directed by Sam Mendes, who visited suburbia before (and much less effectively) with “American Beauty.” Based on Richard Yates 1961 novel, this is Mendes’ best film, a anguish-filled examination of the way hope vanishes and life snaps shut. Its characters are plainly unhappy, and I suspect many audience members will leave exhausted with the despair. But can you think of many great films that feature happy protagonists? Besides, can there be many worse feelings than realizing that one’s discontent in permanent and nonnegotiable?


Blake Badker said...

you might have told me too much of the movie, but then again maybe not

Ryan said...

This is a movie about characters who don't do anything. I can't possibly think of something I'd want to see less, except for someone sawing off my right hand.

Andy Nowicki said...

Wasn't this whole "suburbs are horrible places that kill your soul" theme old about a decade ago? Was this wholesale indictment of all things suburban ever really fair? I grew up in a suburb, and remember it as a very happy time. It's like a sign of "hipster cool" to look down on suburbia, like truly authentic people only live in chic downtown centers or something.... It's nonsense.

James said...

Blake: That's always a fine line. Basically, I end up writing as much as I can say without ruining the movie for anyone while saying what needs to be said about it.

Ryan: On the other hand, I enjoyed this much more than I did "Transporter 3," which is about a guy who does a lot of stuff. There's an examination of discontent here that says a lot about the world.

Andy: I'm often inclined to feel that what you accurately describe as "hipster cool" is arbitrary and silly. But I've found extreme misery to exist in all settings. Sam Mendes' own "American Beauty" is a moronic overstatement of the failings of the suburbs, but I thought "Rev Road" was more subtle, more levelheaded, and more in tune with inescapable pain and discontent.

Ryan said...

James, don't pretend like you expected anything less than action garbage from Transporter 3.

I also still take issue with your distaste for "American Beauty" but I feel like that's something we've hashed over far too many times to come to any sort of agreement on.