Film Review: Revolutionary Road

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The initial audience for this pungent critique of the soul-damaging, ball-busting desolation of the American suburbs of the postwar era might be "Titanic's" Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite in "Revolutionary Road," only instead of their characters finding themselves on a sinking ship in 1912, they run aground in a disastrous mid-1950s marriage.

In the bad-marriage movie sweepstakes, "Revolutionary Road" is no "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But when sheer nastiness seizes its characters, the vindictiveness and emotional damage are breathtaking. Here's the real difference: In "Virginia Woolf," George and Martha are locked into a symbiotic, disturbingly needy relationship that absolutely feed off their acidic battles. But for "Revolutionary Road's" Frank and April Wheeler, you wonder: Why don't they just get a divorce?

The initial audience for this pungent critique of the soul-damaging, ball-busting desolation of the American suburbs of the postwar era might be large. Younger audiences will be curious about the DiCaprio/Winslet reteaming, while older viewers might gravitate toward an old-fashioned domestic drama, the kind that more or less disappeared from cinemas once sci-fi, fantasy and horror took over. Yet the fragile foundation for all the marital histrionics in "Revolutionary Road" might lead to tepid word-of-mouth.

Justin Haythe's script and Sam Mendes' direction hew closely to Richard Yates' 1961 novel. Which means it fails to escape the novelist's misogyny and contempt for anything suburban. The phrase seized upon in both works is "hopeless emptiness." It's apt.

Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) are individuals born with an innate sense of superiority but absolutely no ambition. So finding themselves married with two young children and living in Connecticut, they are frustrated and bored. Her solution: Sell everything and move to Paris where they will get in touch with their inner bohemian.

He likes the idea for a while. Then, when a promotion at his Manhattan firm from a soulless job into a much better paying soulless job emerges, he sours on the idea. Her pregnancy because of bad family planning seems to settle the issue. But Frank hasn't calculated on a stubbornness and selfishness in April worse even than his own.

The Great Paris Getaway scheme is strewn with adulteries on both sides -- his with an office bimbo (Zoe Kazan) and hers with the boorish next-door neighbor (David Harbour) -- intrusions by busybodies like their happily chirping Realtor (fellow "Titanic" alum Kathy Bates) and the story's own Greek chorus. The latter is the Realtor's institutionalized son (Michael Shannon).

The moment he walks into the Wheeler household, he cuts through all the b.s. as he immediately discerns the couple's tenuous relationship. He asks all the right, damaging questions and makes all the right, devastatingly accurate observations. So in this tale of suburbia the only fellow who understands anything is the one on a four-hour pass from the funny farm.

"Revolutionary Road" is, essentially, a repeat for Mendes of "American Beauty," right down to the formal camera compositions, repetitive musical chords and shocking death at the end. Once more, the suburbs are well-upholstered nightmares and its denizens clueless -- other than one estranged male.

Clearly, this environment attracts the dramatic sensibilities of this theater-trained director. Everything is boldly indicated to the audience from arch acting styles to the wink-wink, nod-nod of its design. Indeed his actors play the subtext with such fury that the text virtually disappears. Subtlety is not one of Mendes' strong suits.

The movie mostly finds its dramatic rhythms in the, yes, titanic quarrels between its married couple. These lack for true wit or appreciation of rhetoric. Yet they are as toxic, hateful and desperate as any ever committed to the screen between a husband and wife.
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