As The Wheelers, a perfect-seeming, golden-blond, white American middle-class married couple in Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet press all the high-drama buttons, yet they don’t resemble anyone anybody actually knows. Their marital problems, based on each person’s sulky personality—Frank’s a restless philanderer, April’s a frustrated artist, they’re both jealous of each other—could fill an HBO mini-series. It’s cynical dramedy for people who pride themselves on being smart—that is, unsentimental.
But Leo and Kate’s first film together since Titanic is a commercial calculation, using the stars’ glamour for fashionable sentimentality—a dark look at the American Dream through its twin nightmares, marriage and suburbia—and its subsets, love and careerism. Frank and April Wheeler fail at everything, even hope. (“We shared the secret that we would be wonderful in the world.” That’s how rich smart folk flatter themselves.) The only cliché Revolutionary Road lacks is the word “American” in its title. Since 1961, novelist Richard Yates’ title Revolutionary Road began to stink of pretense; now Yates’ smart-cynical concept has gotten the director it deserves: super-slick, always-pretentious Sam Mendes.
Phony from the get-go, Revolutionary Road oozes artifice. Mendes recreates 1950s America with an alien’s miscomprehension. The Wheelers don’t inhabit a recognizable suburbia; everything’s surreally lush and clean and expensive—a New York Times Magazine–fabricated past. Yet, Mendes, Leo and Kate push emotional realism—glamour-plus-tears. Frank and April are so miserable and caustic that the film exults in American sadness—not like Trouble in Tahiti, Leonard Bernstein’s archly drawn opera about marital discord (which might have fit Mendes better), but like TV’s Mad Men.
One-third comedy and two-thirds tragedy, Revolutionary Road exemplifies today’s rampant self-hating nostalgia. It’s the antithesis of Spielberg’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where mid-20th century Americana was explored for its ambivalent attitudes (capitalism communism = the Cold War; individualism family = society) culminating in the fecund symbol of an atomic mushroom cloud rising out of the eerie, Howdy Doody–echoing, vacant suburbs. That was brilliant satire; but Revolutionary Road doesn’t establish historical antecedents; Mendes simply reverts to American Beauty snark. His big bang features a materialistic community (snooping realtor Kathy Bates); hostile, envious neighbors (nervous nearby young marrieds); plus colleagues and an outpatient psycho (Michael Shannon) who epitomize a casually racist, sexist, demented heritage. Mendes’ formula: Forgotten history the hateful present = America’s doomed future.
Mendes shrewdly endorses mainstream media’s Bush-era contempt that America’s promise rotted long ago. That post-beatnik notion of Yates’ has become middlebrow cant, inspiring Mendes’ immodest stereotypes about ’50s conformity. Fact is, ’50s American cinema already acknowledged social complexities in such memorable films as Home Before Dark (mental illness), Storm Center (political conspiracy), The Marrying Kind (domestic relations) and Some Came Running (sexual hypocrisy). Revolutionary Road overlooks those breakthroughs.
Ignorant about American life, Englishman Mendes offers theatrical conceit and high-pitched histrionics. April’s shriek, “No one forgets the truth, Frank. They just get better at lying,” is not itself a great truth; to say it so blithely somehow sanctions the lies Mendes presents. Leo and Kate resist a Catch Me If You Can good time; their rapport is cosmetic—like the affected way each one holds his cigarettes. The pervasive despair in their bickering and cheating is not just anti-sex, it’s faithless. But it’s showy. The stars do virtual cartwheels in their emotional turnabouts. Leo’s cad reveals the boy inside men, and Kate makes flashy soap opera out of women bullied into self-abnegation. It’s all sour and LaButian, lacking the eroticism and spirit that makes Ibsen, Strindberg and O’Neill the standard for marital/social insight.
Mendes comes from theater, but isn’t it time he finally made a movie about England, or something he really knows? Instead, he uses style—Roger Deakins’ neutral-then-bloody color scheme—to cover up his lame attempts at authenticity. In the plainly photographed 1973 film Alpha Beta, Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts conveyed scary details of a disintegrating British marriage. Revolutionary Road slanders marriage and America in one phony swipe.
Directed by Sam Mendes, Running Time: 119 min.
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