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.

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