Movie Review: Revolutionary Road
The Charlotte Observer
Were the closets of every prosperous suburban home of the 1950s filled with broken dreams? Did every man commute to a grindingly inconsequential job because he didn’t know how else to provide for his family, or because he’d have to confront his own spiritual emptiness if he quit?
Did every woman pine for freedom from these split-level prisons and suppression of their own personalities? And do we need yet another film about these soul-crushing times half a century later?
If the answer to the last question is yes, see “Revolutionary Road.” Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet do exactly what’s asked of them as Frank and April Wheeler, who may be ironically named: They spin emotional wheels constantly but get nowhere.
Director Sam Mendes, who covered similar ground in “American Beauty,” evokes the Eisenhower years in every detail and sets a reasonable pace for the script by Justin Haythe, who adapted Richard Yates’ 1961 novel. Yet the path is so familiar that not a step along it takes us by surprise.
Yates said the title referred to his belief that our colonial ancestors’ dreams dwindled down to these stifling emotional cul-de-sacs. It’s possible to put a fresh spin on constricting class and sexual relationships from this era – see Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” – but “Road” settles for familiar discontents.
April and Frank meet at a party after World War II, when he’s come back with an expeditionary force from Europe. They marry and have two kids; she abandons her career as a mediocre actress, while he follows his late father into a job marketing business machines. (We never learn exactly what he does.)
They fight and plod forward, until April suggests they move to Paris to restructure their lives: She’ll work, and he’ll take half a year to nurture whatever flame of ambition burns brightest in him. He agrees but gets cold feet when promised a promotion. We don’t know whether he’s afraid to go because he won’t be able to support an imminent third child or because he expects to look deep into his soul and see nothing.
As tensions escalate, Frank and April engage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”-sized shouting matches.
Both participants do this well, and Winslet brings extra layers of pathos to her part, but the harangues run together. The filmmakers try to break this mood by bringing in supporting characters, but none are developed well enough for us to be invested in them.
We don’t care what happens to the pathetic secretary Frank idly beds (Zoe Kazan) or the neighbor who looks longingly over the hedge at April’s body and the Wheelers’ presumably ideal life (David Harbour).
There’s even a rude, mentally disturbed man (Michael Shannon), the only character who speaks bluntly about the Wheelers’ problems. (A madman as the harsh voice of truth – there’s a storytelling device I don’t need to see again for 50 years.)
The filmmakers may be trying to draw parallels to modern life, but those don’t apply.
The Wheelers’ malaise comes from a specific blend of ingredients: postwar exultation, the belief that middle-class prosperity (then widely available for the first time) inevitably meant happiness, the dilemma of an intelligent and ambitious woman uninterested in being a mother and unable to be taken seriously in the workplace. Luckily, most of us have moved past these conditions and delusions.