Sunday, August 16, 2009

Revolutionary Road

"Tell me the truth, Frank. Remember that? We used to live by it. And you know what's so good about the truth? Everyone knows what it is however long they've lived without it. No one forgets the truth, Frank. They just get better at lying." - Kate Winslet, as April Wheeler

The "truth" in the case of Frank and April Wheeler, whose drama is the subject of Revolutionary Road (2008), is that they haven't found happiness, and the prospects of finding it in the suburbs of Connecticut in 1955 will only get worse. Based on the first novel (1961) by Richard Yates, who was a kind of latter-day (and lesser) George Gissing, a chronicler of civilization's discontents, the film handicaps itself from the start by glossing over April's failure as an actress, which is the best explanation available for her subsequent actions, and which is made much of in the novel. All the director, Sam Mendes (who also happens to be Mr. Kate Winslet), allows us to see of this central disappointment in April's life is the look of chagrin on Frank's (Leo Di Caprio's) face at the curtain call of April's performance in a high school auditorium (1), everyone's polite avoidance of the subject backstage, and April's private tears in the dressing room. Driving home, Frank's words of consolation make matters worse and the couple pull off the road for an argument that reveals more resentment than either of them knew was there.

From that moment the couple begin to drift apart. April is the catalyst because she is so purposeful. Frank, unfortunately, has grown comfortable with his morning commute. (One of the first indications that we are glimpsing a lost world comes early in the film on Frank's train trip to the city. When all the passengers disembark at Grand Central, everyone in the shot, mostly men, is wearing a hat.) April must stay at home, and the shot of her standing at the end of her driveway gazing forlornly down the empty street - incidentally called Revolutionary Road -, every driveway with its silver garbage can, is a potent illustration of how lost she is in that prosperous perfection, where everything has its place, even hopelessness.

There is plenty of alcohol in the film, from hungover co-workers to martinis at lunch and scotch after dinner. And the cigarettes are ubiquitous. Dreamworks actually placed a disclaimer in the end credits, stating that they "did not receive any payment or other consideration . . . for the depiction of tobacco products in the film". That anyone would suspect, in 2008 that they had set out to represent smokers in a favorable or even glamorous light is somewhat astonishing.

What is it exactly that makes the Wheeler's life in the suburbs such a nightmare? The paucity of intellectual pursuits? As photographed by the incomparable Roger Deakins (Pascali's Island, The Village, No Country For Old Men), designed by Kristi Zea (Goodfellas, Beloved), and costumed by Albert Wolsky (Sophie's Choice, Bugsy, Road to Perdition) I didn't see anything about their lives that was particularly terrible. Perhaps their early days in bohemian Greenwich Village made them make the mistake of thinking they were cut out for intellectual or artistic success, and not the materialist trap they find themselves in ten years later? But that they should agree that their lives are empty and that they must abandon everything - the boring good job, the boring beautiful house - and traipse off to Paris comes as a completely unconvincing surprise, to us and to everyone they know. The only other person who approves of their plan is a self-proclaimed certified lunatic. John Givings (Michael Shannon), who has undergone numerous electro-shock treatments, is like the Fool in King Lear (or so we are expected to think), who speaks the truth but whom nobody takes seriously. His schizophrenia, as the book specifies, was the result of his own hopelessness in the suburbs.

In his sensitive essay on Yates's novel (2), Christopher Hitchens outlines why he now finds the book "dated": "How can people bear to suffer so much, one keeps wanting to ask, when no great cause is at stake? . . . The proposed move [to Paris] is so central to the action of the book that one regrets to find it unconvincing." The film compounds the problem by recreating suburban life in Connecticut in all its 1950s freshness and its well-groomed glory. Yates used this surface beauty as a kind of mocking contrast to the hopelessness at its heart. But it was so much easier for him to capture it in words. All we get in the film are those perfectly clipped lawns and beautiful cars constructed like tanks (when the Wheeler's have their side-of-the-road argument, Frank injures his hand when he punches the unyielding roof of his car, and later April has sex with Shep Campbell in his front seat!). Yates gives the period setting an all-too convincing reality and a poignance, even when it cannot commiserate with the lives playing themselves out thereagainst: "The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves … A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place."

Since this is April's story, the film appropriately belongs to Kate Winslet. She is something of a wonder in contemporary film. The splendid roles which she is routinely offered now are only there because someone like her is around to play them. One could not say as much even for Meryl Streep in her heyday. She manages to communicate something of what Hitchens attributes to Yates: "If [he] had one talent above all, it was for conveying the feeling of disappointment and anticlimax, heavily infused with the sort of embarrassment that amounts to humiliation."

Beside Winslet, Leo DiCaprio is merely competent as Frank. He has struggled so valiantly, hasn't he, to convince us these past ten years that he can play a man. He is getting there. Kathy Bates is wonderful as Helen Givings, the Wheeler's ultimately silly neighbor and mother of John, who had such high hopes that the Wheelers would bring a touch of class to Revolutionary Road. The film closes with her husband (Richard Easton) listening, but not listening, to her prate on and on about how the new residents of the Wheeler's house are such a perfect couple and the "right" people.

Sam Mendes has such a sterling reputation as a theater director that it is a shame he cannot make a good film. I never blamed him, as some critics did, for American Beauty (1999). That film's great weakness was its script by Alan Ball, who has returned to television where he obviously belongs. For giving us another chance to marvel at his wife, we can be thankful to Mendes. Perhaps it would've been too much to ask for a better film?

(1) The play was The Petrified Forest.
(2) Hitchens' article can be found here:

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