On “Revolutionary Road”

01.07.09 9 years ago

Paramount Vantage

One of the reasons I’m baffled by the way people are arguing politically right now about the definition of marriage is because no two marriages are alike, and the idea of any of them being “sacred” is slightly insane.  From the outside, marriages are impossible to judge.  The only two people who really understand that dynamic… and I mean all of it, the sexual chemistry, the intimacy, the ways they hurt and heal each other… are the two people involved, and frequently, even they barely understand it themselves.

Maybe people have written that “Revolutionary Road” is all about the suburbs and the toll they take on a marriage, and while there are definitely many books and films about that subject, I don’t think that’s what Richard Yates was writing about in his rightly-acclaimed novel from the early ’60s.  Instead, I think he was more interested in the ways people will like to themselves to try and fit into these roles they think they’re supposed to play.  Marriage is one of those things that we are all pushed to want, according to society, but for some people, it’s a trap, and as soon as they’re in it, they start to die.

I’m not convinced this material was ever going to work onscreen.  Some books work perfectly as novels because of the way prose allows us to experience someone’s internal life.  Film is very much about the external, what happens between people, and while there are certainly plenty of big moments between characters in “Revolutionary Road,” the fireworks are just symptoms of the malaise that slowly eats away at April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her husband Frank (Leonardo Di Caprio).  The point isn’t the fighting; it’s all the crap simmering under the surface that pushes these two further and further away from the love-struck kids we see in the opening scene, and that’s nearly impossible to dramatize.  You can talk around it, but actulaly demonstrating what happens inside these two seems to be elusive.

And maybe Sam Mendes could have cracked it if he’d had a better script, but Justin Haythe left everyone stranded on this one.  It’s not an adaptation of a novel; it’s a Cliff’s Notes summary, with all of the plot but none of the subtext.  This may be one of the best-pedigreed terrible scripts of the year, and I’m still struggling to figure out how this many smart people could sign off on such a shallow piece of writing.  The film never manages to work as either a stylized dramatic reality or something authentically observed, and that failure of tone hobbles even the best moments.

There’s been a fair amount of talk about the performance by Michael Shannon as John Givings, a “certified lunatic” who is the son of the realtor who sold the Wheelers their house.  He’s the one character in the film who seems to speak without any filter, and he’s certainly got some juicy lines to spit out.  But he’s a device, not a character.  He’s there to give voice to all the subtexts you can’t stage.  He has the best line in the film… indeed, one of the very best lines of dialogue this year… but I never believed him.  Or much of anything else.

Part of it is, of course, the iconic value of casting Di Caprio and Winslet.  I think it hurts the film as much as it helps it.  The end of “Titanic” was all about loss and the agony of a love cut short, and this film offers up one possible answer to the question “What would have happened if he had lived?”  Surprise! It’s a world of shit.  Once you get that punchline about 20 minutes into the film, though, there’s not much more to it.  They just keep circling around to make the same point in different ways.

If you take the film as a head-to-head battle, Winslet wins.  She plays all that stuff that’s either too literal in the script or unmentioned completely, and she’s good enough to convince you that April has a real inner life going on.  Di Caprio never sells it for Frank, though.  His best moments in the film have to do with Maureen (Zoe Kazan), a young girl who works in his office.  The only time Di Caprio seems alive in the film is when he’s toying with the affections of this girl, and Kazan brings a bruised, sullen quality to her work.  She’s a dumb little bunny who seems completely unaware of just what a snake Frank is, and once she does realize, she doesn’t seem to mind at all.  When Di Caprio tries to stand toe-to-toe with Winslet, though, she just blows him off the screen every single time.

A film like this is more frustrating than a film that is outright awful.  Youv’e got some great tech contributions, like the sober cinematography of Roger Deakins, but in the end, it’s a huge amount of effort that’s been dumped into a project that never crystallizes into the cohesive whole that everyone’s so obviously straining for.

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