Revolutionary Road (2008)

Director: Sam Mendes

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By Roderick Heath

Something that adaptation and criticism have in common is that when practised upon on a perfectly ordinary piece of work, be it through film, literature, or theatre, both can encapsulate that piece of work, comment upon, extrapolate, and even dwarf it—and finally, leave few surprises to be had in that artwork. But a great work’s essence will remain mysterious, its qualities appreciated, but not captured. Criticism and adaptation end up charting the edges of a continent.

I haven’t read Richard Yates’ celebrated, apparently invigoratingly negative portrait of suburban malaise which has captivated a sufficient number of people to be acclaimed one of the best novels of the past century. The tale of Frank and April Wheeler, who have lost the joys of their early married life, are embodied in the film by the ironically cast lovebirds of Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Frank and April met at a New York ersatz-hipster party; she was a wannabe actress, he was a quick-witted goof. They fell in love. He took a job with the business machines company for which his father was a dead-end salesman. They moved to the leafy Long Island suburbs, had two kids, and that’s where the tale picks up, April still trying to keep her acting flame alive by starring in a pathetic amateur production of The Petrified Forest. She sucks (or so we’re told—the film avoids showing it to us), and neither she nor Frank will let her off the hook for the deadly sin of being unremarkable.

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After a concussive fight, April and Frank meander in their private traps: April takes out the garbage and stares wistfully into the middle-distance. Frank seduces a secretary (Zoe Kazan) because he can and dreams up fake names for departments and work solutions that impress and delight both secretary and bosses: he gets an offer of a promotion purely on the basis of one of these inventions. For Frank, such an offer holds the promise of validation and real success, as opposed to efficient lifestyle maintenance. But it comes just as April has dreamt up a more radical plan for them and their kids. They’ll sell up what they have, skip off to Paris, and she’ll support him with secretarial work whilst he…works out what the hell he is. The terror of terrors: he’s meant to be what he is, and April can only wait for the arrival of Betty Friedan. Nonetheless, April’s plan gives both her and Frank a new spring in the step for a while, until that job offer makes Frank take a step back.

It’s a perfectly familiar tale. We’ve all lived out some aspect of it. It nails with accuracy the anomie, the frustration, the slightly ridiculous plans that people who’ve been married and settled for nearly a decade can generate when faced with the shock of realising that youth and the bounty of chance are retreating. It’s set in the years between the massive dislocations of WWII and the paradigm shifts that fuelled the ’60s social revisions. The ’50s were defined by a craving for stability conflicting with a deep-set angst. But the Age of Anxiety wasn’t just anxious because it was conformist. It was about terror—the spectre of the unresolved recent past and the threat of it coming again.

But Revolutionary Road’s portrait of this social background is thin and unconvincing, the historical milieu lacking density. And as played out here, the tale is also familiar because we’ve seen it all before. The figure of the soul-voided, whisky-swilling company man in the gray flannel suit and the housewife who weeps over her dishes have become comforting stock characters, straw dummies for New Agers to slice hunks off when necessary. The images of the era’s domestic pop culture—Robert Young playing suburban Solomon and Donna Reed vacuuming whilst wearing faux pearls—have been so relentlessly satirised and mocked as unreal, mind-warping propaganda that there’s nothing new to be said, whilst simultaneously confirming some awful power still left in those myths, the longing for wise patriarchs and contented housewives. There’s a retreat from modern life in that past world that’s both comforting and fit to patronise.

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Be that as it may, too much in the film is stock and obvious, designed to shove the viewer down a preordained path. Amongst the major supporting characters are Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), her husband Howard (Richard Easton), and their son John (Michael Shannon), who each provide a useful type. Bates is a prattling, irritating busybody, and Howard turns off his hearing aid to spare himself his wife’s talk. John, a former mathematician recovering from mental illness and shock treatment, is the all-important Shakespearean Fool who insists on telling the unadorned truth about what he sees in people, thus allowing the dramaturgs to insistently underline what they think about the Wheelers and about ’50s society. Not that there isn’t an element of truth to the notion that intelligent, asocial people were considered generically insane at the time. But there was also a tinny fantasy popular amongst pseudointellectuals at the time that it was a good thing to be insane, too.

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There are also the Campbells, Shep and Milly (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), the Wheelers’ best friends who are also sort of their own personality cult, wowed by the good-looking couple (particularly Shep, who gets to consummate his crush on April in what is for her a moment of supremely pointless lust), impressed and ennobled by the Wheelers’ blessing them with inclusion in their above-it-all postures. One thing we don’t like to admit, and which a close cousin to this film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? confesses, and is built around, is that awful marital conflicts can be perversely entertaining to watch, and, yes, participate in: they’re a survival mechanism.

For all its aspirations to ferocity and tragedy, Revolutionary Road fails to build to anything but a mildly dispiriting aftertaste, and a large part of the problem is its hermetic, self-obsessed relentlessness of purpose. Rather than a hysteria-wracked atmosphere, Mendes’ film is stagy, set-bound, and overdrawn. It’s the sort of film where the set decorators reign supreme. Great period films, especially ones set in the relatively recent past, do not draw attention to their period. Mendes remains a very theatrical director: his cinematic flourishes, like the so-damn-precious pullback that reveals a telling spot of blood of April’s dress, are try-hard. I was never not aware of DiCaprio, Winslet, and their costars (with the ever-reliable Dylan Baker an exception) as actors biting into material. To an extent that’s right: Frank and April are self-dramatists (bullshit artists is the less kind but more pertinent phrase) who relate to othersand to each other,  in alternations of well-worn poses alternating with raw contempt. But it’s another thing to be straining for violent confrontation and be mouthing stilted lines of dialogue in a forced fashion.

Classical tragedy is supposed to evoke the smallness of man before the universe. Modernist tragedy tends to be more social—the smallness of man before other men. I was reading Racine’s Phaedra in the days before seeing this film– a work that, admittedly, overshadows just about anything else—and it works in much the same way as Ford’s narrative. The plot, the tangles of desires, conflict, confusion, the attempts to communicate taboo emotions and then take back what’s said, fuse together to create a vacuum of fate, and makes it impossible for the characters to pull out of their crash-and-burn trajectories. But there’s also a deadly simplicity and simultaneous ambiguity to its form that eludes Revolutionary Road. Racine observes faults, but he doesn’t blame. Revolutionary Road, in its way, is as petty and patronising as its characters.

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Yates’ novel is by all accounts largely interior, and the script, which seems to have been transcribed by screenwriter Justin Haythe, doesn’t really give a great deal of such insight. Haythe and Mendes want to wallop us with a painstakingly art-directed moral. In this regard, the moral framework of Revolutionary Road comes very close to being adolescently reductive: if you’re not capable of being extraordinary and running off to Paris, then you’re dying like a rat in a cage. By all accounts, Yates’ novel is far subtler and more substantial; Frank and April, far from being identified as victims, are more squarely designated as a pair of faux-boho wankers blaming their own faults on their environment. If they had moved to Paris, they’d find a whole other set of things over which to give each other hell. There’s no actual companionship in their marriage: it’s a meeting of egos, a relationship of personae.

It would be harder—indeed, has proved harder—to make films about variations of today’s angst, such as another Winslet vehicle, Little Children, directed by Todd Field, who had earlier directed In The Bedroom, an adaptation of a book by Andre Dubus. Of, say, some of the folks I met in the America of George W. Bush, trying to live as suburbanites whilst maintaining a grip on their fringe ideals and being driven quietly nuts by the refusal of their society to wise up until the damage was done. Compared with John Turturro’s intermittently extraordinary Romance & Cigarettes (2005), which told a tale of everyday, mundane passions in a completely inventive fashion, and in which Winslet was far more dynamic, Revolutionary Road is barely cinema. Never mind John Cassavetes or Ingmar Bergman, who could do this sort of thing standing on their heads. The confrontations between Frank and Alice, which ought to be mean and inversely exhilarating, have the studied, histrionic force of a well-oiled dance routine, like the tacky tiffs between Michael and Kay in The Godfather Part II extended to feature length. Where Revolutionary Road wants a featherlight, observational touch and a sense of feral invention, it’s strangled in the cradle. Like Elia Kazan, a distinct predecessor, Mendes combines a hectoring force with a capacity to remove subtlety and substitute a kind of textbook extrapolation of meaning that defines middlebrow art. It’s more retrograde than revolutionary. l

  • Pat spoke:
    2nd/02/2009 to 9:13 am

    As always, your analysis is thoughtful and erudite. But ultimately, I could not disagree with you more – and I have read the novel, twice, by the way. It is a book I love deeply, although it is devastating and harrowing. And, quite honestly, the film left me with the same sad and wrung out feeling that I experienced when I finished reading the novel. I found it to be an effectively realized adapation of the book.
    The constant carping by you and many other critics about how “art directed” this film is escapes me entirely. I can’t remember a single detail of the Wheeler’s home decor, but I do recall the scalding intensity of their final fight. And that intensity is very true to the source material.
    Yates’ novel is, in fact, very interior, and the film does omit signifcant parts of the Wheelers’ back story. I found that both DiCaprio and Winslet were able to distill the elements of their characters’ stories into their performances quite effectively.
    I’d really like to go into more detail with regard to my take on Revolutionary Road, but I’m at work now, so will have to find my way back to this comments thread later.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    16th/02/2009 to 11:05 am

    I am not quite where you are with REVOLUTIONARY ROAD Pat, but I am also not where Rod is either. My site colleague, the esteemed Allan Fish, completely agrees with you, and has REVOLUTIONARY ROAD as one of his top films of the year.
    The review is brilliantly written though. Of that there can be no question.
    I think Pat, that this paragraph really, really qualifies your arguments:
    “As always, your analysis is thoughtful and erudite. But ultimately, I could not disagree with you more – and I have read the novel, twice, by the way. It is a book I love deeply, although it is devastating and harrowing. And, quite honestly, the film left me with the same sad and wrung out feeling that I experienced when I finished reading the novel. I found it to be an effectively realized adaptation of the book.”

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