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Dead end

Sam Mendes's not so Revolutionary Road
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  December 30, 2008
2.5 2.5 Stars

Video: Trailer for Revolutionary Road

America offers a promise of possibility, that right to pursue happiness, to live the Dream. Richard Yates's crushing 1961 novel Revolutionary Road examines the moment when we realize that our lives come nowhere near what we imagined for ourselves, when we arrive at a future we did not anticipate, when our hopes have given way to disappointment, failure, and humiliation. It's a masterful, devastating portrait of a marriage crumbling and a merciless critique of the torpor and predictability of 1950's suburbia. 

Revolutionary Road | Directed by Sam Mendes | Written by Justin Haythe, based on the Richard Yates novel | With Leonardo Dicaprio, Kate Winslett, Kathy Bates, Dylan Baker and Michael Shannon | Dreamworks Studio | 119 minutes

Sam Mendes's faithful adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler, seldom approaches the novel's depths of sorrow. Mendes's American Beauty serves as an apt prequel: another story about waking up one morning and realizing your life is inescapably vanilla. Compared with American Beauty, with its rose petals and dancing plastic bag, Mendes handles Revolutionary Road with restraint. Yates's language is even and precise, and Mendes responds in kind. But Mendes's precision lacks heart.

Frank and April are a normal, middle-class couple, attractive and well educated. They leave New York City for a house and two kids in the Connecticut suburbs. Both approach this world with detachment, with a "we're-above-this" superiority. Frank works at a soul-sucking office gig for the same company his father toiled at for 20 years. April, once an aspiring actress, experiences housewifery in all its isolation and thanklessness. In an effort to escape, April proposes that the family move to Paris to lead the sort of lives they're meant to live. And so sets into motion a summer of manic optimism — kissing on the lawn while the kids play in the sprinklers, self-satisfaction when they reveal their plans to friends over cocktails — followed by a cataclysmic fall.

DiCaprio and Winslet ably fill the roles. He with his neat hair and boyish charm, bemused and bored. She with her lost gaze and modest blouses. The anger, in the battling scenes, feels raw, the veins in DiCaprio's neck tumescent, the silence behind Winslet's eyes glacial. But what's missing is the depth of their self-delusion.

The book's great flaw comes with the John Givings character, the institutionalized son of the busybody real-estate agent (Kathy Bates is a caricature in the role). He visits the Wheelers and spouts Truth, sees through the couple's delusions, and needles their fears. In the novel, the madman as truth-teller feels like a tired literary device. But in the film, Michael Shannon's performance, with his wooden face and empty eyes, chills more than any other.

Whereas the book demands that we recognize ourselves in Frank and April, that we look at our own private compromises and failures, the film fails to challenge. Instead of seeing ourselves, we see two movie stars only barely able to make sense of themselves and each other. Reading Revolutionary Road is to be both punched in the gut and haunted, long after reading, by a lingering sense of dread. The same cannot be said for the film. Mendes gets the emotional tenor right, but the interiority is lost. Only so much can be expressed in a tense pull on a cigarette and wounded looks of censure.


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