Revolutionary Road Review

On paper, Revolutionary Road, the Oscar movie that never was, had enough key ingredients to make it a serious awards contender: Richard Yates's scathing indictment of Eisenhower’s American dream as source material; Sam Mendes's first-time directing his wife, perennial Oscar bridesmaid Kate Winslet; and the reuniting of Hollywood’s most profitable screen couple ten years on. It couldn’t miss. Only it did, with Winslet instead winning for The Reader leaving Revolutionary Road to secure a single major nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Michael Shannon, alongside a couple of design nods, none of which it won.

As to the question of just what went wrong with Revolutionary Road the answer is a deceptively simple one – it’s just not very good; beyond the big names and massive literary pedigree lies just another picket fence tragedy that’s awkwardly heavy-handed and unapologetically dull. And really, it didn’t have to be, and to be fair it opens with promise. Where as most “marriage is hell” dramas always insist on touring the happiness before the hatred, here April and Frank Wheeler don’t even get to finish their initial slow dance meeting before we flash forward seven years and they’re screaming at each other on the side of the road; the fairytale strains under pressure as he feels the chokehold of the cubicle and her acting aspirations are reduced to the realm of drudgery amateur dramatics. We don’t know how we got here. We don’t know when the rot set in. We’re as lost and confused as they are. Clearly this is something we should ponder.

Only we’re not allowed to as Mendes delivers scene after scene of pure histrionics, where everything that doesn’t need to be said is bellowed from the rooftops via a series of excruciatingly loud screaming matches that ring as empty and as hollow as the Connecticut conformity they’re apparently so desperate to flee. In the role of April, Winslet for the first time in her career comes over – and I can’t believe we’re about to say it – like a bad actress - all despairing sighs and open-mouthed disbelief. DiCaprio under Scorsese has developed a simmering intensity, which would have served Frank well. But given the requirement of the story that he go toe-to-toe with April he resorts to a routine based entirely on volume.

Mendes’ other cardinal sin is to take sides in the story, which unsurprisingly unbalances it almost entirely. What the Yates novel purported and what Mendes seemingly disregards is the notion that in order to know the one you love you must first know yourself. Desperate to save her marriage from suburban rot, April’s solution is that they up and move to Paris where she will work and Frank can discover his passions. Frank, in turn, wants to secure a promotion in a job he freely admits he can’t stand so they can afford a bigger place for the family and nicer things for April. Both are so frantic to solve the other’s perceived problems that they avoid any hint of self-examination. Both are happy if not eager to play a role, any role (even that of a controlling husband or a passive-aggressive housewife) for fear of what they might discover if they simply dropped the facade. It does appear in flashes such as Frank’s lunchtime screw with a new girl from the typing pool. He takes to her not because he’s attracted to her but because it’s an action that fits his image. His awkward, hurried departure afterward speaks to larger issues of his confused identity.

Helen Givings, Kathy Bates’ neighborhood busybody, speaks of them not as people but as some abstract concept by delightfully informing others that they simply must meet “The Wheelers” as if they were somehow ethereal rather than a couple who live down the street. They are beloved not for who they are but because they play their roles so well, at least in public, and they do so because it’s easier for them. But Mendes misses this point entirely and comes down firmly on the side of April, presenting her move to Paris not only as something that’s realistic but exactly what the couple needs. Championing a single side in this way paints April as something of a victim and Frank merely a loathsome monster who squashes not only her chance at happiness but also his own out of sheer bloody mindedness.

Having so unbalanced his own movie, Mendes attempts to remedy the situation through the character of John Givings (Michael Shannon), Helen’s mentally ill son whom, freshly released from the asylum, visits the Wheelers and gleefully highlights the crushing depths of their mutual insincerity. A deeply ironic character on the page, here Givings just plays the tired role of the mad prophet who speaks the obvious truth and highlights the subtext a surer adaptation might have left you to discover for yourself. Choked out by its own knotted, reductive nature Revolutionary Road is as frustrating a film as you will ever find, if for no other reason than that Sam Mendes simply knows better than this.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

Listening to the commentary between director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe, the failure of the film is even more perplexing as it seems they painstakingly pored over every minuscule aspect of the book in deciding how best to translate it to a visual medium. "Lives of Quiet Desperation" is an extensive making-of featurette whereby everyone involved offers gushing tribute to the book and each other while at the same time offering only minimal insights into the filmmaking process. Also included is "Richard Yates: The Wages of Truth", a biography of the author that offers great insight into how a story such as this comes about; the featurette paints him as a man racked with self-doubt who was at best an alcoholic and at worst mentally ill. Also included are several deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer.

"Revolutionary Road" is on sale June 2, 2009 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Justin Haythe (Screenplay), Richard Yates (Novel). Starring Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon.

May
29
2009
Neil Pedley • Associate Editor

Neil is a film school graduate from England now living in New York. In addition to JustPressPlay, Neil writes about for Uinterview.com as well as being a columist and weekly podcast host at IFC.com. His free time is spent acting out scenes from Predator in the woods behind his house, playing all the different parts himself.

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