Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2009)

Last year’s Revolutionary Road, which garnered several Oscar nods despite getting a somewhat mixed reception, is based on a 1961 novel by the writer Richard Yates. It’s a book I’ve read and enjoyed, insomuch as anyone can enjoy a book about the “hopeless emptiness” of 1950s suburbia, but I read it so long ago that I was hoping to be able to take the film on its own terms. Unfortunately, like many movies based on beloved works of literature, Revolutionary Road is a film that exists very much in the shadow of its source material. On the outside, it’s a gorgeous looking, expertly acted piece of work, but unlike Yates, director Sam Mendes lacks the kind of incisive, incendiary storytelling skills to truly exploit the material for all its worth.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler, a married couple on the verge of their thirties. The two have always considered themselves exceptional-- immune to the soul-crushing monotony of meaningless jobs and a safe life in the suburbs. Yet as the film opens, Frank has found himself pushing paper at the same machine company his father once worked for, and the couple now have two kids and a simple, pleasant house on the street that gives the story its name. The disappointment of this existence has started to weigh on their marriage, and in a momentary flash of inspiration, the two hatch a wild plan to uproot their family and move to Paris, as they had dreamed of doing in their youth. This plan, which seems doomed from the start, briefly reinvigorates their relationship, but it brings along with it wholesale problems that force the two to question themselves and their ambitions.

As the content might suggest, Yates’ book is narratively audacious, heartbreaking, and distinctly American, and yet it’s these strengths that only help to highlight the problems with the film, which is rigorously classical and so stylistically unambitious that the only reaction it gets from the viewer is one of overwhelming ambivalence. Normally, this points to a number of problems, but in this case the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the director. Mendes’ style here is relentlessly cold and detached, and for a story that is rooted in the American experience, oddly British. Many of the sequences are reminiscent of some kind of English chamber piece from the 40s or 50s--the scenes are well-composed and gloriously acted (especially by Winslet), but the style is stagey, stuffy, and too reliant on dialogue over action.

The thing is, you almost can’t blame Mendes for taking this approach. The book he's working from is full of small, wonderful moments, and he has a stellar cast and the hottest cinematographer in the business (Roger Deakins of No Country For Old Men fame) at his disposal, so it’s easy to see why he’d want to make the movie he did. The problem is that Yates' book has always fallen under the same “unfilmable” umbrella as novels like Catcher in the Rye or The Moviegoer for a reason. It’s a cerebral novel, almost experimental in the way it mines the contents of different characters’ psyches in order to build a story out of a scattered collection of events. Mendes has the unenviable task of trying to construct a film out of a book that is largely made up of characters’ thoughts and internal monologues, and outside of using constant narration (which, thankfully, he doesn’t) there’s not a lot to work with. You’ve got to give him points for trying, but the results don’t work, because when it all comes down, all the great moments in the novel of Revolutionary Road spring from the pseudo-omniscient asides by Yates, the embittered, eternal cynic, and not from the dialogue of his characters, whom he goes out of his way to portray as petty, feeble, and misguided. Mendes has to rely entirely on the outward actions of Frank and April to tell his story, and the results are naturally much more sympathetic to their foibles.

This would almost be excusable, but the real sin Mendes commits here is in not using his camera to create some--any-- kind of stylistic dissonance between what is being said by the characters and the real dramatic truth of the story. He’s much too content to film the couple’s domestic squabbles and heartbreaks from a safely removed distance, and this somehow becomes as exhausting as it is dull. Mendes has a background in the theatre, and he clearly loves actors (especially in this case since he’s married to Winslet), but he focuses on performance over action, movement, and meaning to a fault, and ends up turning what was a sad, ironic kind of satire into something more closely resembling Greek tragedy. Maybe it was the only choice he had when working from such an “unfilmable” novel, or maybe he’s just incompetent. Either way, as much as I hate to use the cliche, the results pale in comparison to the source material.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Zombieland (2009)

Right from the opening credits, Zombieland lets it be known that it doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a fun, uncomplicated ride. Instead of a quick montage establishing how the world came to be overrun with zombies, or menacing shots of the undead walking the streets, the film starts with a series of ultra-slow motion shots of people frantically running from hordes of flesh-eating cannibals. One guy desperately tries to carry a kid while being chased by an army of the things. Another is only steps ahead of a naked zombie stripper. In my personal favorite, a guy wearing a tuxedo straight out of Fantasy Island shoots an AK-47 right at the camera as a group of the walking dead converge on him from all angles. Oh yeah, and this all set to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica.

If that doesn’t make it obvious enough, this is a film that desperately doesn’t want to be taken seriously, and I’m happy to say that it succeeds admirably in this regard (just take a look at the several cut scenes featuring the “zombie kill of the week”). Lots of movies have advertised themselves as being exactly what Zombieland is, only to weigh down the fun of their premise with absurd melodrama, halfhearted social commentary, and insulting attempts to “push the genre further” (see the Dawn of the Dead remake). Thankfully, the filmmakers behind Zombieland, specifically director Ruben Fleischer, know that’s not why anyone goes to see a zombie film when it’s not directed by George A. Romero. With this in mind, they never sell out on the built-in hook of their premise--in short, that zombies are as scary as they are inherently goofy, and that it's damn good fun to watch Woody Harrelson (who's having the time of his life here) take to them wielding a banjo as a weapon. Fill that out with some sharp one-liners, some interesting stylistic choices, a killer soundtrack, the always hot Emma Stone, and one of the most wonderfully ridiculous cameos in recent memory, and you’ve got what everyone wants from this genre-- a solid, unabashed B-movie.

Naturally, this is not to say that there aren’t faults here. Some aspects of the aesthetic Fleischer employs don’t quite work, like the rules for staying alive that the main character Columbus (played by Jesse Eisenberg with that endearing awkwardness that seems to be the trademark of his generation of actors) follows unerringly throughout the film, and which are flashed on screen each time they come into play. It’s a fun idea, but the rules aren’t half as creative as they should be, and by the fifth time the one about always shooting a zombie twice makes an appearance, it’s a bit more than stale. It’s these aspects of the film that get most frustrating, and this is only because Zombieland’s premise is so wide-open (thankfully, the cause behind the zombie apocalypse is left unexplained) that there are infinite avenues the story could have gone down at any particular turn, and not every one of them is guaranteed to satisfy every viewer.

But in saying this, I’ve already started overthinking this movie, which is as much a carnival ride as it is a film (it’s no surprise the main characters are on their way to a theme park). This film is certainly not making any headway in raising the genre back to the artful level of something like Night of the Living Dead, but that’s clearly not something Zombieland even pretends to be interested in. This is a movie that happily eschews all logic and faux-complexity in favor of showing Woody skid a car around a corner while gunning down zombies with an Uzi, and it’s all the better for it.