Seldom has such an intelligent, impeccably mounted film seemed so far removed from the contemporary cultural mood as Revolutionary Road. Director Sam Mendes crafts a respectful adaptation of Richard Yates' acclaimed 1961 novel. Mendes cast his wife, Kate Winslet, and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank Wheeler, a young married couple chafing at the constraints of suburbia and the corporate rat race.
Revolutionary Road mercilessly exposes the doomed aspirations and inevitable conformity that accompanied America's prosperity in the mid-1950s. The film arrives at theaters, however, in the midst of an economic recession and a different national mood than even six months ago. At a time of mass layoffs and foreclosures, Revolutionary Road misses the zeitgeist by a mile. Perhaps Mendes shot the film too beautifully for its own good, because it's hard to share much sympathy over Frank's gray flannel office job, or the imprisonment April feels at their roomy Connecticut house on hilly, tree-lined Revolutionary Road. The bad timing only exacerbates the nagging sensation that the Wheelers' self-pitying predicament lacks universality or the scope of tragedy.
Mendes' lovely prelude presents Frank and April first seeing each other, literally across the crowded room, at the height of their open-minded attractiveness. The spark has definitely extinguished when we see them next, as spouses. April suffers a disappointing opening night while acting in a lousy community theater production of The Petrified Forest, and the evening culminates with the couple in a screaming match by the side of the road. It's like DiCaprio and Winslet's roles both survived Titanic only to live miserably ever after.
As they struggle in domesticity, Frank and April find few places to vent their frustrations except at each other. Frank has a tryst with the new girl at the office, which we can only imagine is his first, while April seems indifferent to motherhood, their two small children proving practically invisible throughout the film. Then April clings to an impulsive idea like a lifeline: They'll move to Paris, where she'll work, Frank can find himself, and they can enjoy the lives of Bohemian free spirits.
DiCaprio and Winslet's charisma and passions seem too big for the film's simple sentiments. They dig deep, but you never quite forget that they're hardworking actors trying to invest meaning into fairly ordinary personalities. (Winslet puts herself in the shade after her transformative performance in The Reader.) Screenwriter Justin Haythe inhibits the film with workmanlike dialogue that relies on exclamations such as "People are alive there! Not like here," or "I want to feel things—really feel them." AMC's superb series Mad Men covers far more of similar thematic ground through wit and implication, rather than spelling out its ideas with the heaviest possible hand.
The Wheelers' planned Parisian trip nonplusses their friends and colleagues, including an amusingly tweedy Dylan Baker as Frank's co-worker. The only person who seems to understand them is John Givings (Michael Shannon), a mental patient prone to blurting inconvenient truths during awkward social calls. At one point, he calls the couple "The revolutionaries of Wheeler Road." Rarely has a film hit a symbolic place-name so hard since Blanche DuBois took a streetcar named Desire, transferred to Cemeteries and got off at Elysian Fields.
Though playing the stock character of a crazy gadfly who's more "sane" than the normal people, Shannon's live-wire presence shakes the film from its tastefully appointed, overly determined predictability. Winslet fares similarly in her largely dialogue-free portrayal of April making a fateful choice late in the film.
Otherwise, you end up wondering what attracted such talents to the material, apart from the book's esteemed reputation. I can't help but wonder if Mendes was stung by criticism of American Beauty, his previous, Oscar-winning suburban takedown, as being glib and misogynistic. Revolutionary Road almost feels like a do-over that offers sensitivity and sincerity, but at the expense of humor and spontaneity. Revolutionary Road features undeniable curb appeal, but its social critique seems out of sync with today's market.
This article first appeared in Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative newsweekly.