Review: Revolutionary Road

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English director, Sam Mendes is at it again in his latest indictment of American life and values, Revolutionary Road. This film, like Oscar Best Picture Winner, American Beauty, takes us to the suburbs, only this time, instead of modern times, the setting is a drearily realized 1950s. The decade, based on the film's color palette, was experienced in bland pastels, grays and various incarnations of beige -- no bright red rose petals flying from a nubile Mena Suvari's cleavage this time round. Contributing to the film's general visual drabness is Roger Deakins' photography. Deakins, one of the greatest living cinematographers, is practically on auto-pilot, settling for a series of conventionally composed static shots and even stooping to clichéd "shaky cam" at the film's emotional climax. It is possible that Mendes was attempting to represent the mundanity of suburban life with dull imagery. However, it is equally possible that this really represents a shortcoming in the filmmaker's visual style; it just is not shot in a very visually interesting way. Time and time again, his films retain a contrived wooden feeling, revealing his former occupation as a theatre director.

The performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, reunited for the first time since Titanic, would also be more suited for the stage than film. While rich in emotional content, they lack the subtlety and nuance usually associated with actors of this caliber -- they speak in loud stage voices with each word carefully annunciated. At no point, even during scenes featuring violent arguments, does one character interrupt or speak over another. The supporting actors, even the venerable Kathy Bates, over pronounce every word, making everyone, not just Winslet, sound like they're doing their best impression of an American accent. While there are these glaring imperfections, I would be remiss if I did not call attention to some of the lovely moments in both leads' performances. There is a wonderful moment when DiCaprio's character, Frank Wheeler comes home to a birthday surprise concocted by his wife, April (Winslet) after sleeping with his secretary. In the subtle wet glistening in his eyes, we see shame, guilt and unexpected joy all mingling together. Winslet, in turn, successfully conveys the myriad of contradictory elements that coexist in April -- she is distant, passionate, arrogant and fragile all at once.

What the film lacks in cinematic know-how it makes up to some extent in content. Based on Richard Yates' celebrated novel, the film follows the life of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple with two children who, against their expectations, have settled into a conventional suburban life. Both husband and wife possess a smug certainty of their innate superiority to their neighbors. They are funnier, more clever, more beautiful, more intellectual and capable of greater depth of feeling. They begin their marriage under the assumption that they will both lead exceptional lives: April as a famous actress and Frank following some undefined calling. When things don't work out (April proves to be a mediocre actress and Frank is working at a dull sales job for the same firm as his father before him), the two dream of escaping their boring life in a Connecticut suburb and moving to Paris. The scheme, truly April's brainchild, is an assault on their associates' conventional sensibilities, but has a temporarily restorative effect on their marriage. During this brief happy period, the pair has a steamy sexual encounter on the kitchen counter, which inadvertently causes April to become pregnant with child number three. Ironically, this moment of blissful freedom serves as the excuse for the Wheelers to not go to Paris and keeps them shackled in their white suburban home. A big promotion offered to Frank at his firm serves to encourage him to stay put. It is clear that at this point he has relinquished himself of his onetime ambition to "feel things... really feel them" and resigned himself to a conventional, even clichéd existence. He is your run of the mill "family man" with a wife and two kids who sleeps with his secretary and drinks a glass of sherry when times get rough. April, however, upon the realizations that there will be no move to Paris, she no longer loves Frank, and she is destined to watch her life rot away in a tomb of conventionality and conformity, takes desperate measures to escape. She attempts to abort her unborn child one afternoon when she is alone in the family home in what is one of the only visually interesting scenes in the film. We watch as crimson blood pools on the ivory rug between April's feet and the back of her dress -- a literal expulsion of the vitality, which has already been figuratively drained from her life.

Also worth mentioning is the character of John (Michael Shannon), a former mental patient who is briefly acquainted with the Wheelers. He serves in the capacity of a Cold War Era Cassandra; a supposed madman who speaks the truth in defiance of the suffocating conformity of surrounding society. Upon hearing the Wheelers are no longer moving to Paris, John yells at the couple, telling them exactly how cowardly he thinks they are. The scene is entertaining but, nevertheless, contrived and something of an insult to viewer's intelligence -- John is merely giving voice to psychological motivations that were easily deduced from the preceding action. It is strange that a film that is overtly critical of conventionality would be so conventional itself. Always playing it safe in an obvious bid for an Oscar nod, which it very likely will get. This is the sort of emotionally overwrought banality the Academy loves.

Tags: revolutionary road, sam mendes, leonardo dicaprio, kate winslet, kathy bates

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Original Comments Posted (1)

AthenaEngels says...

"He serves in the capacity of a Cold War Era Cassandra; a supposed madman who speaks the truth in defiance of the suffocating conformity of surrounding society."

Fantastic line!

Feb 13, 2009 7:06pm

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