Friday, December 26, 2008

Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes returns to the same subject matter as his Oscar-winning American Beauty in this adaptation of the 1961 Richard Yates novel: well-off white suburban angst. The genders are reversed, but otherwise, the situations in the two films are remarkably similar. One member of a couple living a superficially idyllic suburban life gets restless and can no longer stand the dull routine of conforming and consuming, leading the other member to seek a return to steady, quotidian equilibrium.

Kevin Spacey's vague ennui is a bit easier to tolerate in Beauty (a film, I admit, I loved at the time of its release, but which has lost some of its allure in the ensuing years) because the character and the film are funny (composed, as they were, by former sitcom writer Alan Ball). In Road, Kate Winslet's April Wheeler is so severe, so deadly serious at all times, it's sometimes hard to understand her desire to break free of the mundane at all.

It's not that Winslet gives a bad performance. Quite the contrary.

As scripted by Justin Haythe (I have not read Yates' novel), April could have been an extremely unsympathetic heroine. Her behavior is erratic, her moods shift wildly, and she makes some difficult choices. Winslet succeeds in bringing out April's essential decency, and this makes her plight far more deeply felt and meaningful. A character that could have come off as almost maniacal is instead pitiable, a woman who knows exactly the thing that could make her happy - escape - and who comes perilously close to getting it before seeing her dream strangled.

I think the problem, with both Road and, to some extent, American Beauty, is that both films fail to really capture exactly what it is about the suburbs that make their respective protagonists SO insane. Like, yes, these communities seem boring, and filled with phonies, and senselessly focused on "outdoing the neighbors" with impulsive purchasing. Like many Americans who live in rural or urban neighborhoods, many of these characters are trapped in increasingly bitter, sexually frustrating marriages.

But we're not talking garden variety disillusionment, or even depression, here. Revolutionary Road, in many ways, is a film about a woman driven to a nervous breakdown by the pressures of suburban life. Yet the film BEGINS with her already feeling intense distaste for her situation. We never get a chance to understand what has pushed her to this point. It makes Mendes' films on this subject, on some level, rather superficial. It's easy to just axiomatically insist that the suburbs are a certain way, but it's much more difficult, and satisfying dramatically, to actually render them this way.

As April's husband, Frank, Leonardo DiCaprio does his usual professional job, but this isn't one of those roles with which he really connects. DiCaprio's never bad, but he only really gets to disappear into a role every rare once in a while.

As with every Mendes film, Revolutionary Road looks great. (Naturally, as it's shot by Roger Deakins). The era of the early '60s is brought vibrantly to life, particularly in scenes depicting Frank's daily commute to work in the city. The movie turns imagery that's often fetishized, played as charming and desirable, in old films - seas of men in suits and hats pouring through city streets and rail cars - into a sinister landscape of existential terror. As we watch, Frank genuinely disappears into a faceless mob. I do think, as I've kind of made clear at this point, Mendes hews a bit too close to the style he already explored in American Beauty. Some moments in this new film, despite the difference in era, seem damn near interchangeable, particularly a series of sequences in which emotionally fragile husbands look out over their neighbor's property with a sense of quiet yearning while tinkling piano plays in the background.

[I should note here that one thing that likewise hurts Revolutionary Road is that it's very similar to the best show currently on television, "Mad Men," in both aesthetic and content. Frank and April's dilemma is still somewhat provocative and compelling to watch, but they're no Don and Betty Draper. A random episode of "Mad Men's" second season would likely be a more entertaining, complex depiction of a tense early '60s upwardly-mobile marital standoff than Revolutionary Road. The film would have felt a lot more essential, I suspect, if it had come first.]

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas. Face.

I have a lovely singing voice. Suck it.