Sunday, June 7, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn, Dylan Baker
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

There's nothing worse than waking up and discovering you've turned into your parents. If you have, you consider yourself a failure while the rest of society thinks you're a success. If you haven't, you consider yourself a success while the rest of society labels you a failure. Chalk it up as a no-win. That's the dilemma facing Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Sam Mendes' trying but almost brilliant Revolutionary Road. Adapted from Richard Yates' acclaimed 1961 novel it does the unthinkable in actually bringing a different take to not only my absolute favorite genre of film, but one that's admittedly been explored to death. Just not from an angle like this.

For once we're presented with characters who are fully aware of the suburban hell they've trapped themselves in and are clawing and fighting to escape. But the harder they fight, the deeper they sink. Mendes skips the formalities with only a single scene depicting the first encounter between Frank and his future wife, April (Kate Winslet). They meet at a cocktail party and hit it off. He made her laugh. There isn't much laughing after that as minutes later we flash forward a few years and they're at each others throats. That trend continues throughout the duration of the picture, nearly suffocating us with their emotional intensity and marital discord.

Frank works in marketing at Knox Business Machines, following in the footsteps of his late father who was employed there for twenty years. He despises it. In an unforgettable shot we see him blend in amidst a sea of flannel suits and bowler hats in New York's bustling Grand Central Station. Everyone looks the same. Scratch that. They are the same. He celebrates his thirtieth birthday by sleeping with a young secretary whose primary appeal to him is that she's the only woman around naively impressed by anything he does. Frank and April, along with their two kids, have just moved into their new home on Revolutionary Road, located in a very wealthy Connecticut suburb because that's "just what you do."

While on the surface their lives resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, it's all a put-on. April comes up with a crazy idea for Frank to just quit his job so they can move to Paris where she'll support him with a high-paying government secretarial position while he gathers time to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Their plan is pretty revolutionary for a time when society's expectations of gender roles in a marriage are very clearly defined. Equally important is keeping up with the Jones,' or rather the Campbells (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), who are sent into a tailspin by the Wheeler's news, causing them to examine issues they'd rather leave alone. The Paris move is set into motion until things are heavily complicated by a surprise pregnancy and a golden opportunity presented to Frank at work. That, and a visit from an unwelcome houseguest, causes their already shaky marriage to devastatingly fracture.

The 1950's have taken a beating in cinema as the decade of boredom, conformity and repression, leading us to ask: "Was it really THAT bad?" But the truth is that this film could have taken place during any decade and still have rang just as true. When the middling box office returns came in for this it wasn't exactly a surprise audiences weren't in the mood to hear or see a wealthy suburban couple whine and complain about their lives as we struggle through an economic recession. There's the temptation to avoid any movie that could possibly remind us of life's very problems, especially if it features characters this realistic...or even worse, "UNLIKABLE." As someone who feels Hollywood's been spoon feeding us false optimism in the past year it was a relief to see a film at least try to tackle serious life issues head-on and ask important, socially relevant questions.

You very often hear people these days utter the phrase "I'm lucky just to have a job." So true, but have you noticed it mostly seems to be uttered by people who hate their jobs? As if they feel guilty and are saying it to motivate themselves to keep going. That's Frank Wheeler. Similarly, when a woman is pregnant our first inclination is always to congratulate them but have you ever thought why? There's a tremendous amount of financial and emotional stress that comes with raising a child and some people just aren't built for it because they're too selfish or irresponsible. Maybe they're only having children because their biological clocks are ticking or all their friends are. April Wheeler falls into both categories. But what makes this couple differ from other spoiled characters who have populated cinema's suburban hell through the decades is that they know (or think they know) what's happening and are desperate to escape, completely unaware that changing everything around them won't necessarily do that.

Paris isn't a pipe dream, but April's IDEA of what moving there will do for them just might be. They come up with all the right questions but answer them all wrong by trying to alter every external detail in their lives without first working on themselves or their relationship, although any marriage that would require this much work might not be worth salvaging to begin with. This leads to the question of how much work should a marriage should take before throwing in the towel.  Unfortunately, doing that just wasn't a viable option for couples during this era. Divorce would have been even more frowned upon than just picking up and moving to Paris. When the Wheelers' gregarious Realtor friend Helen Givings (played to perfection by the great Kathy Bates) decides it would be a good experience for her mentally unstable son John (Michael Shannon), to meet the young couple I cringed, but hearing about Shannon's Oscar nominated supporting performance couldn't have really prepared me.

Shannon's John acts as kind of a bridge between the two halves of the film, popping in to call Frank and April out on their hypocrisy. A former mathematician on leave from the psychiatric hospital, he's ironically the only character who truly understands the problem and isn't afraid to say so...bluntly. When he feels betrayed by the Wheelers, he pushes them to their breaking point, leading to an electrifying confrontation that rivals the deli scene in The Wrestler as the scariest and most uncomfortable few minutes committed to film in 2008. Shannon occupies only minutes of screen time, but he's like a tornado ripping through the picture, leaving a wreckage of distress and shock that stays with the couple (and viewers) long after he departs. There's definitely no shame losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Heath Ledger but the irony there is that Shannon basically comes in and plays his own twisted version of the Joker for two huge scenes. The similarities are eerie.

There's little point arguing whether Kate Winslet's Oscar winning performance in The Reader was more or less deserving of the statue than her work here. They're two completely different parts that call for entirely different performances, the former obviously being the flashier, more Academy-skewing role. It isn't difficult to see why they nominated her for that instead. Both are deserving, but I prefer her more understated, no less challenging turn here, which wouldn't have been possible without DiCaprio, who equals her in every way.

Winslet may be given more notes to hit but DiCaprio is even more impressive, inhabiting a man at war with himself, resentful of society's expectations of him, but too afraid to do anything about it. So he takes it out on his wife. For years DiCaprio has very deliberately made more mature choices as an actor but because of his youthful appearance it's been an uphill climb. None of that is due to of a lack of talent since he's given great performances each time out (with his work in The Departed and The Aviator topping the list), but rather a certain preconceived bias from audiences that he's "too young" for these types of roles. No one can say that about this, his most mature, fully realized performance. He becomes Frank Wheeler in 1950's suburban Connecticut. Just watch his face in the the scene when he returns home to find April and his kids surprising him for his birthday.

Fans of Titanic who waited over a decade to see the re-teaming of Kate and Leo will probably want to hang themselves by the time the final credits roll. This is not an epic romance, or even a romance at all. Despite the fact it was misleadingly marketed as Titanic 2, there isn't a single romantic element in it. It's closer to a horror movie. Think Pleasantville meets Rosemary's Baby with a side helping of Mad Men thrown in for good measure. I'm convinced the hate-filled scenes the two actors share wouldn't have been possible if they weren't really close friends (which they supposedly are) and a very high comfort level must have been there for them to go at each other like they do.

Director Sam Mendes explored this kind of material before with 1999's Best picture winner, American Beauty, but he isn't just repeating himself. This is a far different film, set in a different era and Justin Haythe's screenplay doesn't feel quite as calculated. That's not a knock on Beauty but rather an indictment that the two share anything other than the exploration of a crumbling marriage in the suburbs. Strangely enough, it also doesn't remind me of the most recent flag bearer for this type of movie, Todd Field's Little Children, even though they share an actress in Winslet and Field was originally attached to this project. That film seemed to have a more satirical slant and bite that this lacks, making the two different enough that this film doesn't suffer that greatly in comparison.

Technically, it's a flawless motion picture. There isn't a single wasted shot or moment. The best cinematographer working today, Roger Deakins, tops himself again by bringing the '50's to vivid life with dreamlike precision while the production and costume design is so authentic its frightening. Thomas Newman's subtle piano score comfortably fits the film like a glove. Even the film's most biggest detractors would have to concede it's a top notch production and better put together than any other recent adult drama. I'm curious if it'll hold up moving forward or go the way of just about every other supposedly great film of 2008 and lose its power on repeated viewings. It does seem like the kind of picture you respect and admire in terms of craftsmanship, but can't love because it keeps you at arm's length. We'll just have to see how time treats it and whether, like the similarly themed The Ice Storm, it experiences a critical resurgence down the line.

I understand why this movie failed commercially but am still in complete disbelief that it wasn't better received by critics or the Academy. It would seem tailor-made for them except for the fact that they made up their minds this past year that they'd rather not be challenged or pushed by mainstream entertainment. This isn't easy to watch and full appreciation requires almost full surrender into a state of total despair. Not an easy thing to do. You have to be a hardcore cynic or have a generally pessimistic view of human nature to enjoy it, and even then, I'm not sure the word "enjoy" applies. If you didn't like it, you should probably be relieved. That my favorite genre of film usually features characters who emotionally hurt one another scares me to no end, but it doesn't depress me. What really depressing is when movies insult our intelligence by chickening out.

When the film ended though I wasn't left with the feeling of hopelessness you'd expect after sitting through what's essentially less a movie than an ordeal. That's because of one well-placed, superbly performed scene before the finale hinting that maybe Frank and April finally "got it." Maybe the key for them was finding a healthy balance somewhere between the hope and despair and, at least for a brief, passing moment, they did. It may make everyone feel better about themselves to classify these these people as unlikable but the reality is more complicated. Take away the suburban setting. Place it in another decade. It doesn't really matter. The problems are universal, the story is timeless. Revolutionary Road offers up a new reason why we shouldn't turn into our parents: They may have been even more screwed up than us.


JD said...

Excellent review.
It's a bleak film. A very bleak film. Why it didn't do well it, it hits to close to home for many people. I think Michael Shannon is the film. He speaks the film's ultimate truth.
I feel DiCaprio is good in this. Winslet is good, but the film just grinds away at our core.
When I saw The Wrestler, there was a trailer for this film. The couple in back of said something like why would we want to see that, we live it everyday.
It's a hard film to watch. I'm not sure if like or dislike was ever the right way to judge this film. If you survive it, that is fine. The film had the unfortunate timing of coming out when so many people are losing their jobs.
It does evoke The Swimmer and The Ice Storm, but also Little Children and especially Diary Of A Mad Housewife.

We do become our parents. It's unavoidable. Hopefully, we just try to take the good and lessen the bad.

Excellent review.
Don't worry about what other critics are saying. What do they know? :)

Ben K said...

Excellent review of one of the best movies of 2008. You hit it right on the dot as to why the movie works so well. Some friends of mine despised because the characters were unlikable, but I don't think characters have to be likable for a movie to work. I agree that this is a horror film more than anything else, and anyone coming into this expecting a "Titanic" redux is a fool.