Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on 'Revolutionary Road'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009

"Plenty of people are on to the emptiness. But it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."

That's one of the funniest lines in "Revolutionary Road," but it's not played for laughs in this somber, almost dirgelike adaptation of the 1961 novel by Richard Yates. A chamber-piece of horrors set in 1950s suburbia, Sam Mendes's film exerts a mesmerizing pull, as its beautiful, doomed protagonists navigate starkly disappointing adulthoods. Austere, controlled, achingly sad, "Revolutionary Road" provides an apt bookend to a holiday season drenched in fatalistic gloom.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, who as "Revolutionary Road" opens are leading lives of not-very-quiet desperation. Frank, who works for a business machine company in Manhattan, seems slowly to be becoming his late father, who worked for the same outfit. April, who stays at home with the couple's two children, is clearly miserable, having tried and failed to find an outlet for her talents in a community theater production of "The Petrified Forest."

As "Revolutionary Road" unfolds over the course of a summer, Frank and April make fitful, furtive attempts to be happy, at least according to their neurotically self-absorbed definition of the word. Frank pursues a desultory affair with a secretary at work (played by the wonderfully expressive Zoe Kazan). April hits on the idea of moving to Paris, a city Frank visited during the war and the symbol of everything April hoped life would be when she and Frank started out.

Those hopes are never quite articulated in "Revolutionary Road," other than April's vague references to leading "interesting" lives or being "happy." Part of the Wheelers' tragedy is that they don't have a rhetoric for their experience. April is fighting her role as a full-time homemaker years before Betty Friedan would write about the problem that has no name. Frank is confronting the ambivalence that surrounds his own gender role, long before phrases like "gender role" would become part of the American lexicon.

The subtext of "Revolutionary Road" is that the Wheelers never belonged in a tidy Connecticut suburb like the one they've landed in -- they're supposed to be hip, vaguely bohemian, superior or, as April calls it, "special." They're ironic, but irony doesn't exist in 1955, at least as a viable cultural stance. So they're left with the boiling, increasingly toxic sludge of resignation, resentment and dissatisfaction.

Those emotions, and probably dozens more, play with fascinating depth across the face of Winslet, who never puts a foot wrong in a performance that calls for April to appear unhinged and then coolly self-possessed in a moment's time. The entire psychological arc of "Revolutionary Road" can be discerned in April's face, whose classic features gradually crumple into a reddened mask of despair over the course of her harrowing summer. (It would be interesting to watch "Revolutionary Road" with the sound off, just to read the movie in Winslet's face.)

In Frank's business parlance, April has done her own inventory control. She knows what she has, what she needs, what she can live without. Frank, on the other hand, is a squishier character, and DiCaprio's performance commensurately harder to nail down. On one hand, he still seems too boyish, too insubstantial, to be playing a man coping with the encroaching realities of adulthood (as the movie opens, he's just turning 30). But it's precisely that childishness that's called for in "Revolutionary Road," where the neighbors routinely call one another "kids" and the Wheelers even seem too big for their furniture, as if, one visitor notes, they're playing house.

That visitor, by the way, is a mentally unstable man named John Givings, played, in the movie's finest performance, by Michael Shannon. In "Revolutionary Road's" most disquieting subplot, John's meddling mother (Kathy Bates) introduces him to the Wheelers because she thinks they're intellectual. In a series of unhinged encounters, John at first endorses the couple's bold attempts to fight the "hopeless emptiness," then sees through their encroaching self-deception.

It's the self-deception that gets you in the end, of course, and the Wheelers' failure to renegotiate their mutual mythology finally sends "Revolutionary Road" into its unsettling denouement-- that and their refusal to look beyond their own puling, narcissistic attempts at being "interesting" to anything larger or more meaningful. With a production design that admirably resists the usual wasp-waists and Pyrex-primary colors of the period, and another haunting score by Thomas Newman, Mendes creates a kind of prequel to his earlier ode to suburban angst, "American Beauty." (In its depiction of reluctant adults, "Revolutionary Road" also echoes Winslet's 2006 movie "Little Children.")

Yates's novel, which was revolutionary in itself as a masterpiece of realist fiction, has deservedly earned scores of admirers over the past four decades, especially among writers. For them, the movie version isn't likely to offer more by way of interpretive nuance. Rather, Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe are content with a mere plot-and-dialogue adaptation, bleaching out the book's Proustian sense of detail and observant humor. The result is that "Revolutionary Road," while undoubtedly tasteful, restrained and emotionally affecting, is a hard movie to love. It's possible to appreciate the hopelessness, even while wishing for a little less emptiness.

Revolutionary Road (119 minutes, at AMC Georgetown, Landmark's Bethesda Row and Landmark's E Street) is rated R for profanity and some sexuality and nudity.

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