Sunday, February 15, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Dir. Sam Mendes

As everyone probably knows by now Sam Mendes is married to Kate Winslet. They are not exactly the stereotypical Hollywood couple. Mendes has four films under his belt but his status as a director has been somewhat depreciating since his debut film American Beauty. Winslet is the the chronic underdog of Hollywood with a number of fine performances under her belt and a reputation as a solid, sensual actress, but has been consistently denied Hollywood's “highest honor”: an Academy Award. It seems that these “but” laden post-scripts are what's standing in the way of either Winslet or Mendes becoming a breakthrough, although both have been highly celebrated in more minor, but perhaps also more well-refined, film circles. So it kind of fits that Mendes most recent film, Revolutionary Road, which stars Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio as the misfit couple Frank and April Wheeler, is a disappointment. After being denied access to more conventional appreciation (ie. the masses) Mendes turned to more orthodox subject matter and cast Winslet in hopes that the double achievement of popularity and critical acclaim might be attained for both himself and her. Unfortunately what happened instead was that he made a film void of any standout features. The widely recognized faces of Dicaprio and Winslet (“Together Again!” ran headlines after the announcement of Mendes new film) ended up working against him, not just because so many were hoping that Revolutionary Road would be an epic romance comparable to Titanic. Both Winslet and Dicaprio are noteworthy character actors, but without dimensional, yet malleable, characters even the greatest character actor is bound to falter. Revolutionary Road fails because it is not sure, and thus its characters and actors are not sure either, what exactly it is trying to say. It lacks the audacity to be bold and surrenders to pondering and compulsively exploding at all the wrong times.

Revolutionary Road embodies a growing trend in Hollywood since the turn of the century: divulge the 1950s. Though Mendes set design and appropriation of the time is adequate he renders the 50s in a way that further mystifies rather than clearing up. Unlike Mad Men or Far From Heaven which capture the false sincerity and strident dedication to normalcy, Mendes erects an abysmally obvious artificial insecurity. April and Frank are not a happy couple. They decide that moving to Paris will solve all their problems (Europe is tres chic). Thus begins a theme of secondary or alternative lifestyle that pervades the film but is never dealt with head on. Middle America is boring and confining and Europe is mysterious and appealing; a place where a person can really "discover who they are”. This mindset, although it is absent of rationality, is not uncommon but the reasoning behind it is as flimsy and two dimensional as the reason for placing the film in the 50s. The idea is to make everything seem edgier. Frank and April laugh at their neighbor's shocked reactions to their moving announcement, and find the mentally deranged son of their landlady very agreeable for his outsider's view of the world. That is of course until everything goes to Hell. Frank is tempted into staying at his job. April has several mental breakdowns, makes love to her neighbor, and all the while is contemplating aborting the baby she and Frank made together in a moment of unrefined and unbelievable passion. We're supposed to be shocked at the behavior of two people in a generation known for its conservative, patriotic and straight laced mannerisms. That idea, however, has long since been rebuked, and Mendes motifs of insecurity, specialty as dressed up simplicity and an abstention for the commonplace all feel rather trite. Adding to the limited conviction inherent in the film is how awkward a couple Dicaprio and Winslet are. It's almost as if they are trapped inside a bag of indefinite size and are simply groping around, sometimes frantically, sometimes apathetically. Be it poor pacing on the part of screen writer Justin Haythe or perhaps just a confounding circumstance that never seems to go in the direction you think it's going to (in this case that is a bad thing), any connection between the two characters seems entirely forced. Even in the relatively few moments where the film achieves tenderness or some kind of authentic emotion, the two fall quickly back into their real roles as big name stars in a film that doesn't adequately live up to their respective talents.

In a way, Mendes seems to have inadvertently assumed a directorial role equivalent to the social position of the Wheelers. Frank and April are entirely convinced of their originality; so full of false modesty and sentiments, and yet so utterly incapable of being anything other than melodramatic. Similarly Mendes seems to be attempting to make a film that is simple, viable and passable, but fails because of an earnest belief that Revolutionary Road is something terrific and praiseworthy. While Revolutionary Road is not a complete failure, its redeeming qualities, particularly the portion of the film that takes place after April's botched bathroom abortion, cannot do anything to overpower the overwhelming feeling of a film that is entirely forgettable. In the end I feel exactly the same way April and Frank's neighbor, Shep, feels when he says “I don't want to talk about the Wheelers anymore.”

1 comment:

  1. I like your clever ending. I read that Kate Winslet and a lot of other people absolutely loved the book and that she wanted to make a movie for a long time and wanted to star in it with DiCaprio and that she finally got financing for it and asked her husband to direct it. I thought the 50s style was not nearly so intoxicating as it was in "Far from Heaven," but now that I'm reading the book I think it may be because the Wheelers, thinking they were better than their neighbors TRIED not to emulate the latest fashion. I guess they tried to be bohemian.