Monday, January 12, 2009

Revolutionary Road

By Elise Nakhnikian

Like AMC’s Mad Men, Revolutionary Road is set in Eisenhower-era Manhattan and the surrounding suburbs, where bright young men and beautiful women work hard to project glamorous insouciance, sucking on cigarettes and knocking back martinis as if their lives depended on it. But while the TV series puts fully realized characters on that tightrope, making us feel the thrill when they pull off the balancing act and the terror when they look into the abyss below, the movie puts everything in air quotes.

The problem is not that every detail of director Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel is so meticulously planned – from the immaculately costumed, beautifully lit herd of commuters flowing into Grand Central Station behind Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) to the painfully chipper chatter of his realtor, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates). The problem is that it feels so premeditated. The filmmakers have drained the juice and heat out of Yates’ lacerating prose, as surely they leached bright colors from their tastefully muted “retro” palette.

The self-deceiving Frank and his desperately unhappy wife April (Kate Winslet) are starting the slow slide into middle age, just beginning to lose their long-held conviction that they are somehow special, though they don’t know quite why. Then April has a brainstorm: They’ll climb out of their comfortable rut and head to Paris, where she’ll support the family while Frank takes some time off to “find himself.”

April is galvanized by the idea, regaining lost vigor. Frank likes it too for a while, using their plans to prove to himself and their friends that he really is destined for greatness. But the dirty secret he hides even from himself is that he actually likes his conformist life, even takes pride in the job he affects to scorn. Before long, Frank and April are waging an undeclared war, as he looks for a way out of the plan she clings to like a lifeline.

The novel gives us enough of the couple’s back stories and thoughts so we know what they’re feeling even when they’re not sure themselves. But the movie strips that away, leaving us to watch with increasing detachment as Frank, April, and their friends and coworkers do things that seem quaint, even absurd.

April in particular suffers as a result, demoted from a kind of protofeminist tragic heroine to a baffling neurotic. One moment she’s unable to stand the sight of her husband; the next she’s as solicitous as a Stepford wife. Without knowing what’s making her act that way, you’re apt to think Frank’s right when he tells her she needs psychotherapy.

Winslet and DiCaprio do their considerable best to bring April and Frank alive, even risking looking like bad actors to showcase their characters’ insincerity. DiCaprio, who proved in The Departed (2006) that he could finally pull off a grownup role, reverts to callow insecurity here, letting us see Frank strain as he tries to act sophisticated and “manly.” And Winslet, who won a Golden Globe award for this part, constantly recalibrates her expressive face to cue us into April’s turmoil, while using a theatrically mellifluous speaking voice to show us the effort she makes to control it.

But the filmmakers undercut that effort. The wide-aperture, blurred-background close-ups they favor may reveal every shift in their actors’ mobile faces, but they’re shooting from a cool, Olympian distance. Yates pulls you into his story with the sharp specificity of its details and observations, but Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe emphasize generics over specifics, often leaving us in the dark about what motivates the characters. Instead, they highlight the tragic arc of their tale, scoring it with an intrusively ominous soundtrack.

Like Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road flatters its audience by dressing up conventional wisdom as hard truths, constantly finding new ways to make the point that the “hopeless emptiness” of comfortably middle-class suburban life kills the soul.

That observation may have landed with the force of fresh insight when Yates wrote about it in 1961, but it hardly qualifies as news these days. In fact, with most women scrambling to pay their own bills and Manhattan’s suburbs becoming an increasingly diverse refuge for people who can’t afford to live in the city, the life of a stay-at-home mom in a sweet little house in Connecticut is beginning to look more like an enviable option than a stifling norm.

Of course, the past is never dead -- it’s not even past, as Faulkner famously remarked. But to give the past its due, you have to reanimate the ghosts who lived there. Otherwise, you’ve just got a set, not a story.

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