You’ve been told.
Yesterday we went to see Revolutionary Road with some friends, and only one of us liked it.
You’ve been told, twice.
The film reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, who are excellent actors and who give wonderful performances. They play a couple, April and Frank Wheeler, doomed from the start: she was looking for someone to make her happy, he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do. While many people in the same situation marry each other, the ones who manage to have successful marriages are the ones who grow into their relationships and are able to adapt and handle the challenges life brings their way. One could make a case that the reason the divorce rate is so high is because half of all marriages can’t bring that about.
The Wheelers go from attractive single people to tired suburbanites; it’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Puppy (no wolf in there!) since Frank and April lack the age, the abuse and the ferociousness of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but sometimes do have the booze.
Frank and April met when he was a longshoreman and she an actress. They marry and move to the suburbs. April doesn’t have any acting talent, Frank starts working 9-5 in a cubicle for what would be IBM and commutes to the city every day by train. They live in a very nice two-story center hall colonial on Revolutionary Road somewhere in Connecticut, furnished in lovely 1950s furniture. They’re attractive. Their kids are healthy and handsome, and their neighbors nice. April wears beautiful clothes and nice shoes, and Frank wears classic Hickey-Freeman 3-button suits and classic hats.
OF COURSE, we the audience are supposed to find all these trappings as symbols of “empty suburban lives” because to urban sophisticates all suburban lives by definition are empty. One of the lines,
“Plenty of people are on to the emptiness. But it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”
distills all the nonsense in those seventeen words: suburbia = hopelessness. Since I’ve never bought into this bulls*t, I’m less than impressed by this plot device. Hopelessness can be found anywhere, but particularly in third world countries where opportunity is a word that you can’t even find in the dictionary. By the way, I commuted to New York from the suburbs for nearly seven years and enjoyed working in the city and living in the suburbs. It was a great experience that enriched my life in every sense of the word. Yes, the mass of commuters leaving the trains looks like something out of Metropolis, but that’s mass transit for you.
Aside from the next-door neighbors and the real estate agent’s family, the Wheelers live in a bubble of total social isolation: their parents don’t exist, apparently they don’t socialize with people from work, they have no siblings, belong to no local church or organizations – unlike most people living in 1950s suburbs.
Frank is bored by his apparently dead-end job, and starts having sex with a comely secretary on his 30th birthday, of all days.
April is bored and doesn’t like the realization that “we’re just like everybody else”. She comes up with the idea of selling everything and moving to France where Frank would figure out what he wanted to really do, and April would work 9-5 in a cubicle. It doesn’t occur to either Frank or April to ask, “so, do we want to do something different here, or do we want to do the same thing elsewhere?” This move is supposed to make sense, because, as the IMDB guy put it,
Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America.
April buys Cunard (remember Titanic?) tickets to Europe and is all set to go, oblivious to the fact that the average Jacques in 1950s France had it a heck of a lot tougher than she, never mind the other problems the move would entail – for instance, did her children know the language? How will they learn it? Through bitter experience in French schools?
Mind you, Americans successfully relocate overseas, but they do it with a lot of preparation, particularly when it involves two young school-age children. April just wants to go.
While all this planning and packing is going on, Frank gets an exceptionally good promotion from his boss in what even then was really (and correctly) perceived as a growth industry (computers), realizes that he’s not doomed to live “his father’s life”, and recognizes that the job offer really is his opportunity to succeed. He likes that.
Then April gets pregnant.
The rest of the characters are not only cliches from what we in the 21st Century think people in the 1950s were supposed to be like, but also from watered-down commedia dell arte. Just as in commedia dell arte, we have the themes of adultery, aging and love, an unexpedted pregnancy, an old couple playing tricks on the young, the fool who speaks the truth, with Frank and April as the innamorati. Carry those characters to the 1950s, where supposedly everybody smoked like fiends all the time, make all their friends and neighbors look and sound like every cliche (down to the real estate agent’s husband turning off his hearing aid), and you get the picture.
Unfortunately for Sam Mendes, two of the people I saw the movie with grew up in 1950s suburban America and knew that, for instance, their mothers didn’t live lives of quiet desperation and inner emptiness. Their mothers didn’t even smoke cigarettes. They would also tell you that when they were growing up in the suburbs children were everywhere. The Wheelers’ kids mysteriously and conveniently disappear for most of the film.
I also thoroughly disliked the plot’s use of the mental patient out on leave as a Shakespearean fool. Would it have been OK if this abrasive and unpleasant character was on a wheelchair? Michael Shannon is a wonderful actor and he did a great job, but the plot hits you with a two by four when his character brings much-needed insights into this atmosphere.
The whole film reminded me of those “Can this marriage be saved?” Good Housekeeping Magazine articles of the 1960s that my mother used to read, and by the middle of the movie you know that the answer is, definitely, no.
By the time April self-induces an abortion you are certain she’s going to commit suicide. The abortion comes as no surprise, since you expect she’s going to leave Frank. However, the buildup to that scene had you wondering if Frank was going to get fired for missing the train and who’s doing the babysitting for an entire 24-hr period.
Spare yourself the prefab suburban angst and instead watch DiCaprio in The Aviator, or DiCaprio and Winslett in Titanic. At least Titanic didn’t try to make itself look like an intellectual discourse when it really was a disaster movie.
Revolutionary Road is rated R for language and some sexual situations.
The Husband: “It was as hairbrained and cliched as an I Love Lucy episode, only nobody was having any fun. Lucille Ball would have turned the Paris trip plans into an I Love Lucy episode.”
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