Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Justin Haythe (screenplay), Richard Yates (novel)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, and Kathy Bates
The way cinema portrays it, I’m led to believe absolutely no marriages of the 1950’s ended well. With all of these shattered dreams and repressed rage foaming to the surface, it’s difficult to see how these people have time for mowing the lawn or raising the kids.
In fact, the children hardly make an appearance in Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Revolutionary Road, originally a cult novel written by Richard Yates. They are alluded to, yes, but their most prominent function is to make Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Wheeler feel guilty about cheating on his wife April (Kate Winslet) on his birthday. There he is walking into his own house, and here comes a birthday cake, a happy wife, and two smiling kids right after he got done staring ominously at the steering wheel of his car and feeling dreadful.
It’s this dreary mood of hidden secrets and suburban angst that drives much of Revolutionary Road. And though the children rarely appear, the adults do enough childish dreaming of their own. April and Frank decide to move to Paris, an aspiration they remembered and want to achieve.
The main problem with this film is not the acting, nor the screenplay or the direction. The individual parts all work on an individual basis, but they have trouble meshing. Mendes brought previous light to suburban angst in American Beauty, but here the style and the substance of his direction seems to work against Justin Haythe’s screenplay. The movie looks elegant, sometimes when it shouldn’t. Some of the pacing is also off, and it drags the otherwise excellent screenplay out to sometimes dull ends.
There are times when it achieves just the right kind of poetic tragedy it wants. April collects laundry, and the camera follows her to the living room, where she sees a used sheet and pillow on the couch. She lingers a moment before collecting them, and then a knock on the door prompts her to collect them speedily. It’s the scene like this where the acting meshes with the directing and writing perfectly, though it doesn’t happen enough.
Acting is this movie’s largest strength. Where the other elements falter, the performances never do. DiCaprio and Winslet pair up for the first time since Titanic, and go to dramatic heights that that film never let them do. Their verbal sparring throughout is really given substance thanks to their performances.
Michael Shannon scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the mentally ill son of the Wheeler’s neighbors. Shannon is extraordinary in the role, laying into the hypocrisy of the “sane” suburban residents. Kathy Bates is also great as his mother, with her chipper attitude unveiling her inner turmoil and insecurity.
Revolutionary Road tries to achieve the soaring heights of other, better scathing marital critiques like Who’s Afriad of Virginia Woolf and American Beauty, but fails because of one aspect: humor. There’s not a laugh worth having in this film, and it hurts it tremendously. It doesn’t have the time to ramp up the smoldering tension of AMC’s Mad Men, either. So all that’s left is a beautifully made yet miserably depressing film with nothing new to really say. In a way, it treats itself like the Wheeler’s marriage: a little chipper at first, but then into the deep recesses of the hopeless emptiness.