by Mel Valentin
Nine years after guiding "American Beauty" to multiple Academy Awards, including one for best directing, Sam Mendes ("Jarhead," "The Road to Perdition") returns to suburbia or rather returns to suburban alienation as his subject, through an adaptation by Justin Haythe of Richard Yates’ debut novel written in 1961, a scathing, unrelenting critique of suburban conformity, consumerism, and rigid gender roles through the experiences of a young couple struggling with all three simultaneously. A case study in ordinary lives lived in quiet (and not-so-quiet) desperation, "Revolutionary Road" reunites Kate Winslet (Mendes’ wife) and Leonardo DiCaprio eleven years after their star-making turns as Alice and Jack in James Cameron’s Oscar-winning historical romance, "Titanic."Set in mi-fifties Connecticut, Revolutionary Road follows Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), a young married couple with two small children, as they face an impasse in their relationship. Frank commutes to Manhattan and works for Knox Business Machines, while Alice remains in Connecticut, a housewife to Frank’s breadwinner. Unfulfilled by her roles as wife and mother, Alice, a one-time actress, takes a lead role in a local play. When the play fails, a furious argument breaks out between Frank and Alice. She wants something more fulfilling than the limited roles of wife and mother in an environment both have long considered soulless and empty, but Frank seems content (if not happy) to remain where he is, drawing a salary sufficient to pay the mortgage on their home, make car payments, and cover the remainder of their expenses. Struggling with Alice’s unhappiness, Frank begins a casual affair with a secretary, Maureen Grube (Zoe Kazan).
"A cinematic adaptation that sadly doesn't offer anything new."
Alice eventually convinces Frank that the solution to their personal and professional lives involves a semi-permanent move to Paris. There, Alice hopes to obtain a job as a secretary for a government agency while Frank, free from earning a living, can find his true vocation. At first, Frank agrees, but a sudden promotion and Alice’s unexpected pregnancy convinces him to reconsider the move. While their relationship teeters on Frank’s decision, Alice and Frank’s realtor, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), brings her emotionally troubled son, John (Michael Shannon), with her for dinner. Not surprisingly, it’s John who sees the cracks in Alice and Frank’s relationship as well as all that ails suburbia.
At the time (less so since then), American Beauty was lauded and rewarded for its dissection of modern-day suburbia and the various ways it suppresses and depresses the human spirit while replacing it with an empty materialism and consumerism. Revolutionary Road covers similar ground, with the exception of the period-specific detail of Frank and Alice’s lifestyles and Alice and the focus on the female character (as opposed to the lead character, Lester Burnham played by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) as she struggles to find a way out of a seemingly meaningless existence. Given the 1950s time period and Alice’s gender, she has fewer choices, fewer opportunities than Lester did in American Beauty.
Filmmakers like Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession) or Nicholas Ray (Bigger Than Life, Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place), have already explored the suburban alienation angle from a contemporary vantage point. It was far more courageous for Sirk and Ray (and others) to risk criticism and professional setbacks at the time than for a contemporary filmmaker to critique that particular time period, even if he’s basing his film on a novel published two years after the end of the decade.
Unfortunately, something is missing from Mendes’ cold, detached examination of suburban alienation. Maybe it’s Mendes revisiting material he’s explored better before; maybe it’s the arch, archaic dialogue drawn from Yates’ novel (accurate then, awkward now); maybe it’s the high-octave screaming matches between April and Frank that often seem contrived; or maybe it’s because Revolutionary Road, despite it’s polished production values and Oscar-bait performances doesn’t offer new insights into 1950s America, just a validation of what we already know (or think we know) about the time period and the socio-cultural milieu. Whatever the reason, Revolutionary Road falls short of the kind of film critics, film scholars, and film lovers will want to revisit to mine a new idea or a fresh perspective on a seemingly well-trod subject.As Alice, Winslet is practically flawless, proving (as if further proof is needed) that she’s the most talented actress of her generation (and the generation before and after as well). As Frank, DiCaprio gives an uneven performance, perhaps because Frank’s histrionics play to his weaknesses as an actor. DiCaprio is at his best during the quieter moments, when he’s reacting to comments made during a luncheon with a company bigwig, Bart Pollack (Jay O. Sanders) that sets his future (and Alice’s), during “wet” luncheon with his cronies, including Jack Ordway (Dylan Baker), a hard-drinking co-worker, when he realizes his extramarital fling has become common knowledge, or in the final, devastating scene. In each one, DiCaprio is asked to react, not act (or overact).
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originally posted: 01/02/09 22:58:40