Revolutionary Road

Dir: Sam Mendes

Rating: 1.5

Paramount Vantage

119 Minutes

The suburbs have long been a cinematic milieu for airing discontent. When we watch movies that concern the suburbs, it is usually a familial drama chronicling the dissolution of a marriage. Take a look: in movies, exciting things such as robbery, kidnapping, arrest and whatnot happen to people in the upper and lower economic brackets. Perhaps it is because the suburbs are the endgame of our national notion of the American Dream. The cliché is white picket fence, two kids and a dog. That doesn’t fly in the hood or in Beverly Hills where extreme excess or poverty can’t build a frame around that ideal.

Director Sam Mendes returns to the same middle class discontent he mined in American Beauty with Revolutionary Road, the latest in a string of films that tell us that the perfect suburban life cannot mask our dreams of something bigger. Based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, there is a been-there, done-that feeling about the film. Didn’t Ang Lee (The Ice Storm) and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) already tap this Sirkian idea of what goes on behind the picture perfect homes in America?

While Lee pulled off something miraculous when adapting Rick Moody’s book by injecting depth into his characters, Revolutionary Road suffers from what most page-to-screen translations ultimately die from: characters distilled into caricatures where the interesting parts are boiled away to leave a shadow of a person. It is the bait and switch used by most of these Important Oscar chasers; just because it’s based on something literary, doesn’t mean it is literary.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite for the first time since Titantic to play Frank and April Wheeler, a storybook couple who cannot communicate with one another without shouting. Frank takes the train to the Big Apple each day from their perfect Connecticut home and April dreams of a better life elsewhere. This existence is nothing but routine and the sterility leads Frank into an affair and April to dreaming of moving the family to Paris. When she proffers this solution of escape to Frank, the marriage swiftly and tragically unwinds.

I think that Mendes truly likes and believes in the dreams of Frank and April. He seems to be railing against the conformity of ’50s suburbanism and rather than blame Frank and April for the destruction of their marriage, he goes after the state of the nation. But nothing can hide us from the fact that, on screen, Frank and April are just damned unlikable. There is a paucity of communication between the pair and rather then fine tune his lens to that avenue, Mendes (like Lee and Haynes) blames society.

And here is where the clichés abound. There are the prying neighbors, the quick and regretful car seat tryst where the man cums way too quick. The only burst of life in this deadly film is John Givings (Michael Shannon), an unbalanced son of the Wheelers’ neighbor who first applauds the decision to move to Paris and then derides the pair for being too scared to make the jump. When the crazy character is actually the most sane in the film, you can’t help but miss the irony here. Oh, clever Sam Mendes, clever.

But it is hard to fault the story here, just its adaptation. The characters are flat, two dimensional harpies that seem to have nothing better to do than tear the other down. You also cannot fault DiCaprio and Winslet, who do the best with such skimpy roles. It’s as if Rose and Jack survived the Titanic and moved their shallow selves into ’50s surburbia. But there is no sinking boat to distract from thin characters in Revolutionary Road, just the superficial emptiness of ’50s life that Hollywood, and Oscar, loves to see over and over.

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