REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2008)
The set-up is surefire and swift - boy (Leoanardo DiCaprio) meets girl (Kate Winslet) at an hip apartment party in the late 40’s with the backdrop of bright lights, big city. Before you know it they are married and living in Connecticut with 2 kids and the cookie cutter conformity of the mid ‘50s is in full bloom.
Winslet as April Wheeler, dreams of being an actress but after a particularly bad off-off-off-Broadway performance her husband Frank has discouraging words. “I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?” he says in a severely misguided attempt to comfort her. A vicious verbal fight results on the way home, one of many that make up this film, with raging resentments busting out into the cold open air.
DiCaprio as a bored cog working the same job (salesman at a computer company) his father did for life draining decades longs for much more as well, and a afternoon quickie with a young secretary (Zoe Kazan) does little to remedy his situation. Winslet upon his return home that guilty day, though is seemingly rejuvenated. She has come to what she sees as a revelation – they should pack up and move to Paris, while they’re still young, and that will surely rekindle the fading spark in their relationship.
At first, DiCaprio is skeptical but he slowly takes to the idea. His co-workers (including Dylan Baker and Max Casella) and their close friend neighbors (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn) think the idea is immature but our determined protagonists stick to their guns, that is, until a possible job advancement and an unplanned pregnancy come knockin.’
Though it’s exquisitely made and acted, REVOULTIONARY ROAD suffers from being well trodden ground. Many times before have we seen a “little boy lost in a big man’s shirt” (as Elvis Costello would say) having to blend in with the other suits and ties on a train platform on their way to work in the city.
The oppressive endless clusters of cubicles surrounding DiCaprio in his workplace contrasted with the lined up trash cans in the bland ‘burbs that are crushing Winslet’s spirit unfortunately come off as overdone clichés.
The same thematic elements are handled infinitely better on any given episode of Mad Men – the AMC produced show about advertising executives in the early 60’s that IMHO is one of the best shows of the last decade. Surprisingly Creator Matthew Wiener revealed to an interviewer that he hadn’t read the 1961 Richard Yates book “Revolutionary Road” the movie was obviously based on before embarking on Mad Men but tellingly he stated: “If I had read this book before I wrote the show, I never would have written the show.”
Despite the undeniable chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet, the scenes that really ignite the screen involve Michael Shannon as the son of real estate agent (an uncharacteristically subdued Kathy Bates who was also in TITANIC with Dicaprio and Winslet, by the way).
Bates wants her son to meet the young seemingly stable couple as means to inspire him when he’s on a pass from mental institution. He sums them up immediately: “You want to play house, you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don’t like.
Anyone comes along and asks “Whaddya do it for?’ he’s probably on a four-hour pass from the State funny farm.”
Shannon, though bereft of charm and equipped with an exceedingly sharp creepy edge, is the character who is the most free and the most bluntly honest - therefore a solid spot of comic relief.
He has no need for politeness or disposable small talk, so when DiCaprio speaks of running away from the “hopeless emptiness” of their life there, Shannon is the only one who understands and even encourages them. Sadly, too much of the films pace plods and the energy of Shannon’s scenes is swamped aside by too many painful argument set pieces. “Wasn’t exactly a triumph”, indeed.