Saturday, July 18, 2009

In Responsibilities Begin Dreams (Revolutionary Road)

"Eyes Wide Shut has a lot to say about the psychological accommodations of marriage.... It depends on a sense of the shared mental reality of a couple that almost supersedes any sense of their shared physical reality...."
--Jonathan Rosenbaum, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," 1999

Revolutionary Road, the eagerly anticipated and then abruptly dismissed screen adaptation of Richard Yates's novel (which I've never read), wants to say a lot about this subject too, arguably more than any picture since Eyes Wide Shut -- though, like the Kubrick film, I think it achieves the opposite of what Rosenbaum's penetrating analysis observes. Eyes Wide Shut featured a famous acting couple in the lead roles; Revolutionary Road was directed by Sam Mendes and stars his wife, Kate Winslet, in a reunion with her Titanic co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Kubrick quite explicitly created a "dream film" meant to probe the psychological space that exists between a married couple. Mendes is out to docudramatize a failing union between a profoundly unhappy young married couple in 1950s American suburbia. Kubrick started from the inside and worked his way outward, whereas Mendes starts with the surface and tries to funnel his way in. Both, ironically, arrive at the same place.

Revolutionary Road follows a believable if rather predictable trajectory, enhanced by swift editing and emotional shorthand that gives the movie a sustainable momentum. We begin with the first erotically-charged meeting of the Wheelers, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet), at a party, then cut immediately to a scabrous argument sometime after they are married. Frank, we learn, has transformed from a youthful dreamer to an ennui-filled husband and father who despises himself and his office job. April is an equally discontented housewife and failed actress who one day suggests to Frank that they turn their lives around by moving to Paris, an idea that Frank comes to eagerly embrace until an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy prompts them to abandon their plan. Mendes and his leads do a very good job at suggesting that it wouldn't take much of an excuse to coward out; and in a pair of the film's best scenes, a key supporting character, the mentally troubled yet perceptive nephew of friends, named John (Michael Shannon), provides first a chorus of approval and then later outrage toward their aborting the plan rather than the baby.

 That Revolutionary Road is unsuccessful in its effort to burrow into the shared reality of marriage is no fault of Winslet's, who gives one of her characteristic yet always astoundingly calibrated creations of a character, far superior than her Oscar-winning turn in The Reader (also a far inferior film compared to this one). Her exterior and interior selves work in perfect harmony, and she shifts gears with lightning speed, by turns emasculating Frank and supporting him. DiCaprio is more problematic. I've mentioned, in other films, that there is still something playacting about him, something that's out of depth. He's at his best portraying con-artists (Frank Abagnale in Catch Me if You Can) and other characters that move quickly and change identities. In a sedentary part like Frank Wheeler, he tries hard and yells a lot yet lacks the interior life that draws you inside.

But if DiCaprio fails to connect with his character he connects like gangbusters with Winslet, to the point where Revolutionary Road succeeds as a testament to star power. DiCaprio and Winslet had great chemistry falling in love in Titanic and they have great chemistry even while falling apart in this film. It's their physical reality that shapes the most interesting elements in the picture, and is so palpable that when crackpot John turns on them with a vengeance ("You know what I'm thankful for?" he sneers, pointing to April's belly. "I'm thankful I'm not that kid"), it feels like a violation of something that had, until that moment, still the illusion of something solid. (I thought Michael Shannon was eye-rollingly over the top as the male lead in William Friedkin's Bug, but he's a scene-stealer extraordinaire here, and gets bonus points for telling Kathy Bates to shut up.)

In terms of pure surfaces, Revolutionary Road also succeeds in the sheer perversity of attempting to negate everyone's fond memories of Titanic. Not since Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast traded in on the good will that fans of Harrison Ford had for Witness has there been such a ballsy bait-and-switch of audience expectations. (I suspect most had not read either book.) When April sleeps with a enamored neighbor (a nicely modulated David Harbour), her dalliance is staged as a deliberate echo of the sex scene in Titanic  -- in a car with a hand leaving a palm print on a fogged window. It's the kind of nasty undercut that has earned Mendes a reputation for being a cold fish. As evinced by American Beauty, which stopped aging well almost immediately following its Oscar win, this reputation is largely deserved; yet it would be unfair to claim (as many have) that he's merely trotting out an old bag of tricks this time around, or is unsympathetic to his protagonists. There's no satirical edge in his depiction of the Wheelers, and Winslet has never looked more luminous onscreen.

Like The Mosquito Coast, Revolutionary Road strikes me a great failed movie, one that doesn't quite reach its high ambitions but is still more interesting than most movies out there. (I'm grateful to Ed Copeland, whose enthusiasm for the film motivated me to give it a chance.) It probably doesn't help that a typical episode of Mad Men covers much of the same ground and digs deeper beneath it. (Vincent Kartheiser, the unsung young actor who plays Pete Campbell on the series, shows more depth and range than DiCaprio with a similar character.) In its exploration of the struggle to maintain identity within marital union, of the self within society, Mad Men hints at deeper tragedies than the climax of Revolutionary Road, for all its pathos, can muster. Maybe this is because its creators are aware, unlike Mendes or even Kubrick (whose star-couple separated not long after Eyes Wide Shut's release), that the hermetically-sealed "shared reality" between two people, however powerfully felt, is ultimately a lie. When it comes to reality, they're still sharing it with the rest of us.


Jason Bellamy said...

Terrific review. Very thoughtful and well argued. One of my favorite blog reads of late.

Revolutionary Road was probably my No. 2 film of last year. (My review, if you're interested.) I saw it twice in the theater and I have a Blu-ray here at home waiting for a rainy day.

A few comments ...

* Agreed with everything you said about Winslet.

* I actually think DiCaprio's performance might be the best of his career. It took two viewings for me to realize this, mostly because DiCaprio's big moments are near the front of the film and Winslet's are later on. (And she acts him under the table in their living room shouting match.) So after one viewing, all I remembered was Kate. But Leo has some excellent moments early on -- especially the spirit with which he moves after they hatch their Paris scheme. If you see it again, you might appreciate the performance more ... but I understand your take on DiCaprio as a whole.

* The first Shannon appearance works for me. The second, in my opinion, overstays its welcome and is too on-the-nose and campish. Plus, it brings out Leo's most awkward moment (when he charges across the living room; a scene that just couldn't work the way it was constructed).

* Mad Men: I hadn't seen an episode before I saw this film. Since, I've seen all of Season 1 (I'll catch up with Season 2 on DVD). It's a well made drama, to be sure, and your points are fair. Of course, Mad Men has more hours to find its depth and tell its story, so that's its advantage over Revolutionary Road. (Of course, that it uses those hours wisely is why it's so engaging.)

OK, I'm done. Again, nice work.

Craig said...

Good insights, Jason. I will give it another go, once I get some distance from my first impression. The film didn't entirely work for me, but it's definitely more interesting than it's being given credit for. Whenever the general critical consensus toward a movie is an awkwardly dismissive, "Nothing here to see! Move along!" the odds are it's worth a look.

Steven Santos said...

Great review. I felt you watched the movie more of an open mind than most critics had. I'm fairly sure they've been gunning for Mendes to make up for having overrated "American Beauty" (which you mentioned hasn't aged well). His work is uneven, but shouldn't be so easily dismissed.

I saw "Road" when it was released and admittedly wasn't bowled over though I had much respect for its ambitions. But it has stuck with me more than most of the Oscar-bait movies released at the very end of last year.

The movie also tended to be penalized for being another suburban malaise film, but I took "Road" more to be about the insanity of normalcy. When a couple who had no business getting married and having kids stay that long together to put on a show of normalcy and happiness, perhaps they're crazier than Shannon's character whose honesty should be appreciated but isn't.

The Wheelers are both failed actors, in my mind, playing the parts of husband and wife. I had to also respect the movie for not trying to make its conclusions palatable to the audience (as "American Beauty" did), which left a lot of people at the theater I saw this in very uncomfortable. I think it did hit too close to home for many to appreciate it.

Craig said...


We'll have to disagree on Leo. As I indicated, he's fine for me on the surface; it's the interior changes that I don't buy in the character -- in almost any character he portrays, and Frank is a tougher nut to crack than most. There's even a scene that's framed with the back of his head that recalls Jon Hamm's iconic pose in Mad Men. It's not a flattering comparison.

Steven --

"The insanity of normalcy" is about as perfect a phrase as anyone could come up with. Marriage is held up as such a lofty ideal, never to be questioned, yet the compartmentalization and denial that occasionally go with upholding that ideal are things that the movie conveys very well. And also that it's not just institutionalized, but that individuals like the Wheelers share the blame in playing their parts -- in being "failed actors," as you said.

That Mendes is an acclaimed theater director I'll have to take on faith. What's obvious to me is he's a rare theater director who has made a successful transition -- at least visually -- to movies. Most theater directors make poor filmmakers; they don't get that they're two different mediums. But Mendes has a good cinematic eye, at times even rapturous. It's his schematic quality that's problematic, approaching each story like a thesis in need of supportive evidence. Usually worth watching, though.

CC said...

DiCaprio described himself in a recent interview as lacking emotions. That is an astounding revelation which supports your assessment that he has "no internal life."

Craig said...

Very forthcoming of him. Sort of like a plumber admitting he doesn't know how to use a wrench.

FilmDr said...

Excellent review. I agree with most of it, but I came to Revolutionary Road late with very low expectations (mostly because I absolutely loathed American Beauty), but I especially enjoyed all of the scenes in which the Wheelers resolve to go to Paris, because it is just the kind of thing I would do. I just kept hoping that once, somewhere in the movie, Kate would lean over DiCaprio and say "Jack, I'll never let you go!"

And then if he replied, "You'll die an old woman warm in your bed," well, then I would have been very happy. As it is, the end of Revolutionary Road still carries a hint of the portentous pretension that ruins American Beauty. Otherwise, I was surprised by how much I liked it.