The dark underbelly of suburbia has been explored on screen many times before. Two of my all-time favorite movies - American Beauty and The Ice Storm - peeled back the layers of suburbia to look at its unhappy citizens and to give lie to the idea that it's some sort of utopia. Revolutionary Road does the same thing. I don't think this one is quite as good, or perhaps I just feel that way because I love the other two films so much. Nevertheless, the subject is fascinating, and director Sam Mendes' take on Richard Yates' novel is difficult to shake off.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a young married couple in the 1950's. They buy a house on the titular Connecticut street, thinking that they have finally "made it." However, it soon becomes clear that a nice house in a nice neighborhood does not automatically equal happiness. Frank experiences frustration at work (he sells office machines), while April finds she no longer feels like she has much of a purpose. She wants children desperately, but her husband stalls every time she brings the subject up.
As their malaise becomes harder to deny, the Wheelers decide that perhaps suburban life isn't for them. They come up with a plan to follow Frank's old dream of moving to Paris. After all, it's romantic, it's scenic, and it will give them the motivation to live life to the fullest. But then Frank gets a lucky break at the job and is offered a significant advancement, complete with an executive-style salary. As much as he hates his job, he wonders if it would be best to just stay put and cash that paycheck. Paris falls by the wayside. So does the marriage. Frank and April fight constantly. He has an affair with a young secretary. She responds by turning to the married neighbor who secretly harbors feelings for her. And the issue of whether to have children looms over them like a vulture over a carcass.
Revolutionary Road is a story that explores the explosion of a dream. In the 50's, many people thought that having an office job and a house in the suburbs was the ideal. What many of them overlooked was that those things may be components of happiness, but they are not the totality of happiness. After briefly buying into the fantasy, Frank and April realize that the problems in their marriage cannot be dissipated by money or status. It slowly dawns on them that things probably would have turned out just the same even if they'd moved to Paris. The problem is them.
You can see why Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet would want to make this movie. As actors, there's a lot to chew on. Both sink their teeth into the material, effectively showing us the desperate unhappiness that infects both characters. DiCaprio turns Frank into a fountain of anger; he sells his soul to the company, then gets bitter about doing work he finds unsatisfying. Winslet, on the other hand, plays notes of desperation and depression. Her April has one thing in life she truly wants - a child - and when Frank won't give her that, she has nothing with which to fill the void. If you've read Yates' novel, you know that this story goes to some very dark places, especially with April's half of the equation. Because DiCaprio and Winslet are so excellent, we're willing to stay invested, even as the plot takes us into uncomfortable territory.
When they teamed up for Titanic over a decade ago, the two stars were falling in love the whole time. In Revolutionary Road, there is one scene (at the beginning) where they are happy, but for the rest of the movie they fight. Interestingly, director Mendes (who, now that I think about it, also directed American Beauty) uses the visual style to reflect - and sometimes to contradict - what the characters are going through. Early scenes have a real lushness; the suburban neighborhood is made to look like the dream Frank and April want yet aren't quite fitting into. As the story progresses, the environments somehow seem darker and more foreboding. It's an almost subliminal process, but the beauty of the home and neighborhood seem to take on a less sunny glow. I guess you could say that a home takes on the tone of those who inhabit it. That's certainly the case here.
I loved the look of Revolutionary Road and, of course, the performances. While the premise may not be entirely new, the movie does delve into it deeply, never shying away from anything. That makes it a very engrossing drama. Interesting, too, is how the movie ends. I'm not going to give it away, but the story doesn't take us through the Wheelers' misery for nothing. The obvious point is that suburbia isn't all it's cracked up to be; look deeper, however, and you will find the less-obvious suggestion that the mentality of suburban neighbors (at least in the 50's) chewed people up and spit them out. That's a fascinating idea, which the film makes in an unexpected manner.
I wish there were at least a few more scenes showing Frank and April in happier times. I also had some problems with a supporting character. Michael Shannon plays John Givings, the mentally unstable son of a neighbor, who periodically wanders into the story and tells the Wheelers what's wrong with their life. I guess he's supposed to work as an ironic version of a Greek chorus: the crazy guy is the only one who can see how messed up Frank and April really are. Nothing against Shannon, who plays the character well, but John Givings really doesn't need to be here. He only serves to tell us what we can already see.
Those minor qualms aside, I think Revolutionary Road is a very good film. It's also a downer, which may put some viewers off. Still, I subscribe to the theory posited by Roger Ebert, which states that no good movie is ever depressing, because we can always take pleasure in the quality of a well-made film. Revolutionary Road is a very well-made film indeed, and if it stings a little, that is only a testament to how strong a work it is.
( 1/2 out of four)
Revolutionary Road is rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
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