Upward mobility. Urban angst. Flight to the suburbs. Spouse, family, country home, wide lawns. Unexpected strife beneath the idyllic surface. Sound familiar? Director Sam Mendes won all the big awards in 1998 for his satiric "American Beauty," so can you blame him for trying again in 2008 with "Revolutionary Road"?
This time, however, he is far more serious, working from screenwriter Justin Haythe's adaptation of Richard Yates's angry 1961 novel. Indeed, Mendes is serious to a fault. Maybe too serious. This time out, his picture didn't win any Oscars and, if judging by the length of time it stayed around my neighborhood theaters is any indication, it didn't win over many filmgoers, either. Watching "Revolutionary Road" is a little like looking through your parents' or your grandparents' old photo albums from the 1950s. Look, there's grandma and grandpa. Didn't they look so young back then? They were just kids. Look, there's grandma in the living room; and there's grandpa in the back yard next to the barbeque. And that was their house; a very, very fine house. And so it goes.
The movie, a study of the complexities of marriage and the complexities of the emerging new world of the 1950s, follows the rise and fall of a seemingly typical and content young couple, Frank and April Wheeler, and their two young children. Frank and April met in New York City just after the Second World War, when Frank was a returning vet and April an aspiring actress. They fell in love and moved to a home in the Connecticut countryside; Frank got an office job with a big firm in the city, and April became a housewife. The house sits on Revolutionary Road, the "better" part of the community, upscale and away from the common folk, like plumbers and such.
Every director's favorite performers, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, play the young couple, so you know you're in for some heavy drama. They love, they bicker, they argue, they fight. We see that Frank is initially glib and brash but soon adjusts to conformity and the desire for money. He browbeats April for her aspirations and for not being as practical as he is. A woman's place, after all, was in the home. April, on the other hand, is more of a free spirit; she wants to move the family to Paris and live a kind of Bohemian lifestyle. He's too afraid and welcomes a new pregnancy to keep them where they are.
It appears that Mendes and the book intend for the viewer to interpret virtually everything symbolically (and not a little ironically). The move to "Revolutionary Road," for instance, is a rather obvious reference to the young married couple longing for something new and extreme for them, a home of their own in the country rather than an apartment in the city, a revolution in their lives. Her name, April, represents the beginning of new life, the spring of one's being. Frank turns thirty in the story, thirty a traditional turning point in a person's life, marking a time of change from carefree youth to mature responsibility. And so forth.
It's gets to be a bit much. The Realtor, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), and her husband (Richard Easton) see the Wheelers as a lovely young couple, possibly a good influence on their son (Michael Shannon), a high-strung, emotionally disturbed fellow who has a Ph.D in mathematics but lives in an institution. He's the enlightened idiot of the tale, the person who sees things as they really are. At least he brings a little life to the story. Next door to the Wheelers live Shep and Milly (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), the "anchored" neighbors, the pragmatic straight arrows. The story doesn't miss a beat.
Everyone in the film has unfilled longings; everyone feels frustrated and unhappy in his or her own way; everyone lives a life of "hopeless emptiness." Incessant smoking and social drinking are the diversions of choice, along with extramarital affairs. Frank works at a job he hates, but it pays well. April becomes tired of playing the dutiful housewife and wants change, any change, something more than being "ordinary."
According to the story, people have different needs and when these needs diverge in a marriage, the partners drift apart. Good enough. But it's hardly a revolutionary idea. Nor is pointing out the male domination, the conformity, and the discontent beneath the placid exterior of the Fifties.
The movie's real strong suit is its recreation of the time and place of the era. That and a truly great closing shot of old Mr. Givings, the Realtor's husband, turning down his hearing aid. If more of the film had followed that level of subtle, wry humor, "Revolutionary Road" might have come off a tad more "revolutionary."
To be entirely fair, I should mention that at the end of 2008 my local newspaper reviewer published an article proclaiming "Revolutionary Road" the best film of the year and explaining why. Obviously, opinions vary.
Paramount use an anamorphic transfer to reproduce the film in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Since Mendes purposely used a drab, almost pastel color palette to conjure up memories of the 1950s, that's pretty much what we get on the disc. The hues are realistic most of the time, although skin tones vary from a touch too dark to too white and pasty, and everything in between. It's not at all objectionable, but it is noticeable. Definition is merely OK, with decent black levels, and a blemish-free screen. Truth be told, you probably wouldn't notice how very average this transfer looks without directly comparing it to its high-definition counterpart. Then, looking at the SD is like a nearsighted person taking his glasses off. Yeah, I'm spoiled.
The English soundtrack comes in Dolby Digital 5.1, although the six channels might be overkill given the fact that there isn't much more than dialogue throughout the film. The music is generally lightweight and doesn't open up much to the rear channels, a nod, perhaps, to the monaural of the early Fifties and the vintage recordings used. The sound is clean and clear, to be sure, which is about all one could ask of it.
The extras include the usual complement of commentaries and featurettes. You get an audio commentary with director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe that not only reveals quite a lot about the film but is about as earnest as well. Next, you get the twenty-nine-minute featurette "Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road," which includes observations by the director, the actors, and others of the filmmakers. And after that there is a series of deleted scenes with optional director and screenwriter commentary.
The extras conclude with twenty scene selections; previews of other Paramount releases, found at start-up and in the main menu; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
If "Revolutionary Road" reminds one of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956), it should come as no surprise. Both movies--based on best-selling novels--tell similar stories of corporate seduction and melodramatic marital problems, catching and criticizing the mood of the day.
Of the two movies, I have to admit "Revolutionary Road" is the better because it's easier to see the artistry behind it. Not only is the acting better, it does a more thorough job revealing the Fifties as far from the composed, unruffled era we often remember. What's more, Mendes's penchant for establishing meticulous scenes is evident in every shot. Still, the composite whole of "Revolutionary Road" comes off almost as dull and pedantic as its earlier model, more of a sedate lecture on values than a revealing or entertaining look at life and love. Let's say it's a well-intentioned miss.