Monday, January 5, 2009

Revolutionary Road

directed by Sam Mendes
written for the screen by Justin Haythe, adapted from the novel by David Yates
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates and Michael Shannon

Since American Beauty, Sam Mendes has made three films, including this one. And bless his heart, each of those films, including this one, fall short of that greatness. Greatness in terms of reception. Whether American Beauty was truly "great" is a separate matter entirely (and I happened to like Jarhead). Revolutionary Road is a film that, despite its lofty goals, can't seem to set itself apart from the genre it's working in. The snubs for Revolutionary Road in the awards precursors is puzzling some. Why did its star fade so fast? It has all the trappings of a best picture hopefull, and boasts a reunion of three cast members (Dicaprio, Winslet and Bates) from what was possibly the biggest Oscar best picture of all time (do I even have to type its name?) But alas, the lackluster reception to Revolutionary Road never surprised me, and it surprises me even less having now seen the film. It's exactly as I thought would happen. In a year where we have an attention-grabbing film about a character who ages backward, a zeitgeist-y "underdog" that takes place in India (An aside: seriously, how long are people going to keep referring to Slumdog Millionaire as an "underdog"? Ridiculous), and two hefty biopics in the mix, a film about about marital strife in the 1950s seems very "besides the point," just as I thought it would. This should in no way take away from the fact that Revolutionary Road is not a bad film. At all. But it feels very "been there, done that." Films that suggest there is something more sinister and possibly heartbreaking beneath the stillness and polish of the suburbs. It's been done to DEATH and a lot more subtle and nuanced than this film. Just a few to mention (in descending order of achievement) are Far From Heaven, Blue Velvet, The Hours, The Ice Storm and American Beauty (and that's just off the top of my head).

The film revolves around the Frank and April Wheeler, played by DiCaprio and Winslet respectively. He was "a boy who made her laugh once at a party," and she was an aspiring actress who could never find her footing. What happens is an age old story of American woe. They get married and move to the suburbs. It is the 1950s and the lack of options available to these two people is about to hit them like a ton of bricks. They settle into the typical suburban life. He gets an office job. She becomes a homemaker, fixing his dinner and his drink when he arrives, caring for his children and resigning from dreams. Because this is supposed to be the dream. This film has one of the most astute taglines of the year. "How do you break free without breaking apart?" The film attempts to answer that question, as Frank and April try to initiate the change that their marriage needs to survive. It's heartbreaking to watch the hope build up, only to watch it come crashing down.

Revolutionary Road is beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, but isn't that to be expected? The period itself (the costumes, the sets, capturing the essence of the 1950s) lends itslef to beautiful photography. I went into this film expecting at least this much and was quite impressed. Even Sam Mendes's direction is actually a strength, despite what some reviews have stated. He is restrained here. It's not as mannered and clunky as his American Beauty direction, and it's more subtle (even though the material is not...more on that later).

This film boasts some of the best performances packed into one film I've seen all year. Regardless of one's opinion of the film itself, it's a travesty that Revolutionary Road didn't receive a SAG ensemble nomination. The acting is so good that it often blindsides you, because it's in the confines of a film that finds a slow start, seems unsure of what and how it wants to say and ultimately bites off more than it can chew. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances ever. I'm serious. I don't make blanket statements like this. I don't think I've seen him better in recent memory. It's so great to watch him and Kate Winslet square off again. They've both gotten so much better since Titanic (him especially. He had further to go). Jack and Rose have stepped off the ship and they hate each other. Winslet navigates around the clunky dialogue with ease and finesse, and no one does marital angst quite as compelling as she. It's not her best performance. But it's a fine one indeed. The best in show award goes to Michael Shannon as the mentally disturbed son of nosy neighbor Ms. Givings (a wonderfully breezy Kathy Bates). His character serves a clear and obvious purpose, and he's not exactly inserted organically into the narrative, but man can Shannon command a scene. I have a feeling that a better film exists about his character.

The main weakness of Revolutionary Road lies in Justin Haythe's screenplay, which is overwrought and overwritten. It's also repetitive. The final big quarrel between Frank and April packs a fine punch (seriously, this scene contains some of the best acting I've seen this year), but it would be even more potent had we not seen the Wheelers arguing nearly half a dozen times prior. Having never read David Yates's novel, I can't say whether he's being true to the source material. Maybe Yates wrote a very over-the-top, blunt novel about suburban misery. Being released in 1961, before it all got so tired, it would likely seem fresher. But Revolutionary Road doesn't feel fresh, or profound or even necessary. It's not a great film, much in the way that the Wheelers are not great people. But they are fine people with goals beyond their grasp. For the film, the analogy still applies.

Grade: B-

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