Sam Mendes takes aim at the suburbs again and gratingly misses the mark
Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet are two of the most attractive stars, so why do they seem downright unkissable in Revolutionary Road? Why has DiCaprio disappeared inside the pudgy, glum face of Frank Wheeler, a marketing expert for the IBM-like Knox Business Machines? Why has Winslet shrunk into the gaunt body and hollowed eyes of April Wheeler, Frank's homemaker wife? Why do these two performers, whose obvious chemistry was one of the best things about Titantic, appear alternately bored and annoyed in this new picture?
Screenwriter Justin Haythe and director Sam Mendes are so intent on hammering home the bleak message of Richard Yates' source novel about an unhappy couple caught in the conformist suburbs that they make even these hugely appealing performers blank, bland, and blobby. The filmmakers are so focused on the novel's payoff that they neglect the set-up. Yates' acclaimed 1961 Revolutionary Road was a story of betrayal, but if you never believe the couple was once full of love and high ideals, there's nothing to be betrayed. And in the movie version, the two leads never evince any romance or non-conformism; they simply go from half-hearted optimism to half-hearted pessimism.
Early in the picture, Frank says, "All I know, April, is I want to feel things, really feel things," but you can tell from his immobile face and deadened eyes that he's never had an intense feeling--and isn't likely to if he keeps talking in such hackneyed clichés. "Frank Wheeler," his wife replies, "I think you're the most interesting person I've ever met," indicating an astonishing lack of experience, vocabulary or standards.
The year is 1955; the Wheelers have been married for seven years, and they live in a white colonial house with red shutters on a dead-end street called Revolutionary Road--note the heavy-handed symbolism typical of the book and movie. Frank joins the crowd of identically dressed men--gray suits, white shirts, gray fedoras--as they line up every morning at a suburban station for the commuter train into Manhattan. In the city, Frank takes long, two-martini lunches and indulges in a lackluster affair with a moon-faced secretary.
Back home, April wears a pleated party dress even when she's dragging the garbage can down the driveway or vacuuming the carpet. On weekends, she wears a similar dress when they invite the neighbors over for cocktails and polite chitchat. It's as if Haythe and Mendes were determined to collect every overused signifier of deadening suburbia into an omnibus anthology. Even the suburbia's fiercest critics will recognize this as overkill--hunting deer with a nuclear bomb.
April proposes that Frank quit his job so the family can move to Paris, where she can get a high-paid office job and he can take the time to find what he really wants to do in life. Frank reacts with a cautious nod and a panicky look in his face. Some of the panic, it seems, is a reaction to the prospect of a wife earning more than he does; more of the panic stems from the fear that he has no secret soul waiting to be discovered. The panic proves contagious, for April, who has already flopped as an amateur actress, suddenly realizes with widening eyes that her husband is no more talented or rebellious than herself or the neighbors.
It's not easy to film a satire of the suburban monotony because you always run the danger of your movie becoming as tedious as your target. Mendes looks like a good choice for such a project because he directed one of the best suburban satires, 1999's American Beauty. Revolutionary Road falls far short of not only a good movie like American Beauty, but also a so-so one like The Ice Storm. Road repeats the desultory automobile adultery of The Ice Storm, but utterly fails to account for the crucial role of children in suburbia, as the other two movies did. Frank and April have two kids, but they appear so infrequently and impact the couple so slightly that they might as well be a niece and nephew visiting from Kansas. When Road ends with a spreading blood stain that is as gravitationally impossible as it is intellectually dishonest, you may not believe that suburbia is a hell designed for conformists, but you will believe that suburbia movies are a hell designed for actors who don't bother to read scripts before signing contracts.