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Revolutionary Road 

Richard Yates' 1961 bleak observation of thwarted lives get a big-screen adaptation

click to enlarge A study in self-delusion: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
  • A study in self-delusion: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet

Frank and April Wheeler are the golden young couple of the late 1950s: They have beauty, a charming home in a leafy suburb, two small children, and are properly employed (Frank at a Manhattan office, and April as a homemaker). They are also miserable -- separately and together.

Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet), we learn, met 10 years ago at some boho gathering in New York City. But our first real encounter with them occurs in their increasingly fraught present, as they're engaged in a nasty fight by the side of the road. (Frank: "You're sick!"; April: "How can you call yourself a man?")

Revolutionary Road -- named for the street where the Wheelers live -- is Sam Mendes' handsomely filmed, relatively faithful adaptation of Richard Yates' 1961 novel. The meticulously rendered costumes, settings and traditional mid-century mores (such as the formality of visiting a neighbor) initially suggest that Revolutionary Road will be about how life was before we all got hip to the reputedly suffocating nature of the suburbs. But this is no knee-jerk screed against the clapboard prison -- Yates' themes are more complex, and still resonate sharply.

You see, Frank and April were going to be different -- if they weren't already special, they would become so, somehow. Instead, they've come up hard against the truth that they are ordinary -- and, in their frustration and bitterness, have turned on each other.

Despite the sunlight, the pretty clothes and the attractive leads, the film is broody right out of the gate, increasingly foreboding and unapologetic in its grim conclusion. (For some inane reason, this film, which is not a love story, is being pitched as romantic re-pairing of Titantic's stars.)

Revolutionary Road is a character study, not just of these two unhappy archetypes, but of the rise of an entitled class in mid-century America. It's a place where every self-professed individual deserves the happiness of being fulfilled -- even as much of that yearning takes such vague forms as to virtually guarantee disappointment. ("I want to feel things -- how's that for an ambition?" posits the young Frank in a flashback.) If anything, the expectation that Joe Average deserves something more, that he is glittery promise primed to go large, that he is uniquely wonderful among millions just like him, is more pervasive than ever.

The Wheelers aren't particularly engaging -- you'll note their anguish more than feel it. DiCaprio, who is often a jocular sort of actor, gets a couple showboat scenes that set him on "rage," but it's hard to see past his lightweight boyishness (even as Frank is meant to be young and immature). I always enjoy Winslet's work, though she feels consciously mannered here -- again, even as April is a concerted role-player.

A two-hour film can't hope to convey the depth of savage detail of banality and sly digs that Yates heaps upon the Wheelers and those in their orbit. The condensing of the material makes some of the dialogue noticeably explanatory, such as the sardonic send-up delivered by the couple's mentally ill neighbor, John (Michael Shannon): "The nice, young Wheelers on Revolutionary Road; the nice, young revolutionaries on Wheeler Road."

Mendes is clearly working to capture the detached observational tone of the book (without, thank god, resorting to a voiceover), but that choice does make watching the film more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional experience. Or as the lunatic-savant John reminds us: "Plenty of people are onto the emptiness; it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."

 

Starts Fri., Jan. 16.

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