Revolutionary Road: So Much Fighting, So Little to Say

Sometimes seeing the worst of an on-screen couple helps us realize our own deficiencies in love. The person closest to you in your life always knows exactly what to do and say in order to hurt you, and sometimes they make the active choice to do it in a heated situation. When the chips are down and times get rough, sometimes people make the hard choice and bond together, and other times people take the easy road, assign blame, and get nasty. In Revolutionary Road, however, instead of letting the characters develop full dimensions and hold up the mirror to everyone, Mendes uses them as vessels for a message about the same suburban underbelly he satirized in American Beauty. Except this film has less to say.

It’s the 1950s, and April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively) are the typical suburbanite American couple. She stays at home with the kids, and he goes to a soulless day job to pay the bills. But they use to have dreams—they wanted to go to Paris, have adventures, and be different from the rest of the world. Predictably in a film such as this one, their dreams can’t come true. They try, as April convinces Frank to quit his job and pack up to move to Paris with her and the kids. They seem happy for a moment. However, nothing in the suburbs, and nothing in the 1950s for that matter, was what it seemed. Complications arise. Infidelities occur. People get cold feet. They shout a lot.

Maybe I’m minimizing the quality of the production with my plot description. Certainly DiCaprio and Winslet are fine actors, and the best individual scenes of the film are their fights, well staged and outstandingly acted. However, Winslet seems miscast here—she doesn’t fit into the mold of 1950s housewife. Maybe that’s Mendes’s point, but it draws us out of the world of the film; it’s not really the character we feel being forced where she doesn’t belong, it’s the actress. We also see very little of their romance, aside from one obligatory sex scene, and a flashback or two, so it becomes difficult to see why they would have ever been married in the first place. The effort is made to show that they love each other in those brief moments, and that effort falls short. What are they fighting for? Also, why are their kids conveniently out of earshot of these deafening shouting matches every time they occur? There’s an enormous amount at stake because of their children, why are they never present during these conflicts? I found myself wondering several times during the film if they were up in bed, staring at the ceiling, hating their lives.

There are some strong supporting performances, particularly by Michael Shannon, who takes the somewhat obvious role of the “crazy” person whose only sickness is that they see and tell the truth (his last name is Givings, because he is the only one who “gives” honest thoughts… get it?), and has fun with it. His energy livens up the proceedings, and I’m far more interested in what he’s doing than the Wheelers. David Harbour as the next door neighbor who has secret feelings for April also has a few lovely moments of emotion—again, we end up wondering more what he is going through than the Wheelers. It could be because there is nothing more to know about the Wheelers because they fight so forcefully, but I think it’s because the Wheelers have no dimension and no inner life. I hear the book Revolutionary Road is tremendous— perhaps all of the dimension and motivation for the Wheelers was left on the page.

In the end, this film is overly literary. We see April staring off after Frank, or Frank looking off into the horizon, but we are not really terribly interested in what they might be thinking. The film starts with such a candid and horrible fight that there is nowhere for the story to go, in terms of the narrative—we start unhappy, so it just remains unhappy for the most part. The most intriguing image is the final one, a husband hearing his wife blabber on and on simply turns his hearing aid all the way down. Most people do not wear every single regret on their sleeve, because there’s always something else they want to hide. Revolutionary Road for the most part just becomes obvious, a cardboard commentary on an era and a location we’ve heard enough about in the arts, and a vehicle for two powerhouse actors to scream, shout, and rave impressively for awards season consideration.

~ by russellhainline on January 15, 2009.

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