Tuesday, June 9, 2009

DVD Views: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road **** (2008)
Directed By:
Sam Mendes.
Written By: Justin Haythe based on the book by Richard Yates.
Starring: Kate Winslet (April Wheeler), Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Wheeler), Kathy Bates (Mrs. Helen Givings), Michael Shannon (John Givings), Richard Easton (Mr. Howard Givings), David Harbour (Shep Campbell), Kathryn Hahn (Milly Campbell), Zoe Kazan (Maureen Grube), Dylan Baker (Jack Ordway), Keith Reddin (Ted Bandy), , Max Casella (Ed Small), Max Baker (Vince Lathrop), Jay O. Sanders (Bart Pollack), Ryan Simpkins (Jennifer Wheeler), Ty Simpkins (Michael Wheeler).

Sam Mendes’ debut film, American Beauty, looked at modern life in suburbia in all its ugliness, but made it go down easy with bits of black humor and overall fairly likable characters trying to get through their existence. His new film, Revolutionary Road, looks back to 1955, but tells a similar story, except this time the couple at the center of the film, the Wheelers, are nowhere near as likable or charming as the Burhams were. This time, Mendes doesn’t make it easy on the audience.

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are a seemingly perfect couple. Young, impossibly good looking, Frank has a good job at a growing firm that sells business machines, and the couple have a beautiful home in the suburbs and two gorgeous children. To their friends, the Campbells (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), as well as their old real estate broker Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates), the Wheelers are perfection personified. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Wheelers are miserable.

Frank hates his job. He works for the same company that his father worked at as a salesman for years, and realizes that no one at the company even remembers his father. He feels like just another office drone taking the train in every day, and then sitting at his desk writing manuals for use by the field offices. The job pays the bills, but doesn’t give Frank any satisfaction.

April hates her life just as much. She dreamed of becoming an actress, and now she is stuck doing local plays in the school gymnasium – and doing them poorly at that. She is a smart woman, with lots to offer, but because this 1955, and she’s a woman, she’s stuck at home raising the kids. We flash back to earlier days when the Wheelers first met, and see how bright and hopeful they were – how they seemed to have a limitless array of options in front of them – and how even when they bought this home in the suburbs, because of an unexpected pregnancy, they thought it would just be temporary. Now, they have come to the painful realization that they are just like everybody else.

For a few brief, shining moments in the film, the two are happy again. They decide to sell the house, chuck their lives, and move the whole family to Paris, where April will work to support the family, and Frank will discover what it is he really wants to do with his life. When they tell everyone their plan, they think the Wheelers have lost their minds. All except for John (Michael Shannon), Mrs. Givings son, who was once a math genius, but now lives in a mental hospital. In just two short scenes, John is able to build the Wheelers up, and then tear them down. At first, when they tell him of their plan, he is supportive and kind – he likes these Wheelers. But when things go bad, and the trip is cancelled, John is able to vocalize all the doubts and problems the Wheelers have left unsaid in a vicious scene that is almost too painful to watch.

The movie is a technical marvel – like all of Mendes’ films. Highlighted by Roger Deakins gorgeous cinematography (the film has more memorable images then almost any other film this year, but they all serve the plot) there is not an element out of place. The costumes and art direction, re-create the 1950s perfectly, and Thomas Newman’s haunting score is one of his best. Justin Haythe’s screenplay brilliantly captures the spirit of Richard Yates wonderful novel.

But it’s really the performances that truly make the movie. In small roles, Kathy Bates and Michael Shannon are just about perfect. Bates plays the typical 1950s woman who always has a smile plastered on her face, and wants everyone to be happy, even when its clear that everyone is miserable. And Shannon sets the screen on fire as John. But no one is better than DiCaprio and Winslet. DiCaprio has matured from his teen idol years into an actor of great subtly and power. He plays his big scenes – the ones with the yelling – perfectly, but it’s the small moments that have stuck with the most. In particular, there is one scene the morning after a huge fight where Winslet acts calm and loving to him, and he sits there and looks confused. Every husband in the world knows that look, and DiCaprio captures it. And Winslet somehow manages to outdo herself yet again. She has played similar women before – most notably in the brilliant Little Children – but here she takes herself to a new level. April is the driving force behind the plot – her actions set every else in motion – and much like DiCaprio she plays her big scenes well, but is even better in her quiet moments. There is a monologue she delivers while out with Mr. Campbell that is quietly heartbreaking. She should, at long last, win the Oscar for this performance.

Revolutionary Road is not an easy film to watch. In fact, at moments it is downright painful as the emotions are so raw and real. But it is an honest film, one that doesn’t flinch from showing the bad side. This is one of the very best films of the year.

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