Seemingly no matter which route the viewer takes to find the new film Revolutionary Road, the result is not terribly different: disillusion, disappointment, discomfort. Screenwriter Justin Haythe and director Sam Mendes have built a turgid trip into solipsism while somehow losing almost all of the contextual properties belonging to Richard Yates' novel, which has won regnant acclaim since its publication in 1961. The film bizarrely takes the book's author literally when it should not, and discards his intentions when it should follow them; trusts him completely in his bromidic public statements denouncing the conformity of the 1950s, while strenuously avoiding the engrossingly astute psychology that made the melodramatic pyrotechnics of the decaying, gangrenous marriage whose story it tells somehow more honest than hackneyed. As an adaptation, the film is grievously flawed. Predictably, where the film is at its most convincing, it has simply taken whole pages' worth of acrimonious dialogue practically straight from the novel and made its two stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, play scenes from the novel. Where it fails is in supplying the cognitive supporting buttresses that illuminate the innermost inspirations of Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet).
The triumphs of the film are primarily the superbly convincing production design by Kristi Zea and the fulgurous cinematography by Roger Deakins. The domestic interiors are all blanched to the extreme, with white prevailing. Deakins' ethereally fumid compositions take particular advantage of diffuse lighting, both inside and outside (a shot of a procession of businessmen moving like a herd of cattle is wonderful), and lend Mendes' joke of a visual scheme and palette some credibility. Attempting to evoke the achromatic environs of an insane asylum, Mendes bathes his characters in the background of whiteness. This is surely intended to pictorially describe the “phoniness” and sterile plasticity that became so resented in the 1950s. Perhaps Mendes was also taking his cues from the novel's John Givings (Michael Shannon), a former resident of an asylum, regularly electro-shocked because he dares to be truthful. The character is an embarrassingly hoary construct, so transparent in the almost hilarious pretense—possibly only Mendes would have the gall to keep him in, so perhaps he should be thanked since Shannon's performance is so audaciously redoubtable he manages to breathe some life and amusement into the otherwise almost wholly bleak enterprise. (Shannon is so good, he should have been given an opportunity to play Frank.) Thomas Newman liberally borrows from his own score for Road to Perdition. Winslet, meanwhile, acquits herself well. (If she wins the Oscar this year, however, it should be hoped by all that it is for her exquisite performance in The Reader.) Of DiCaprio, however, perhaps some critics should behave like John Givings and simply state the truth: he is miscast in the part, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that he simply lacks the miraculous internalizing depth that only an actor of a particular unshakably nuanced ingenuousness could bring to a role as poorly adapted as Frank is here. Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or Albert Finney in Alpha Beta, or Erland Josephson in Scenes From a Marriage—all sensationally sensitive, simultaneously extroverted and introverted men who could afford the complex psychological penumbra to Frank that he needs due to Haythe and Mendes' blundering in missing Yates' more pertinent quality of characterization. Frank is, in a most warped way, perhaps, stuck in the Lacanian Symbolic order, and views his father as the main entrapping force of his life, which he hopes to replace with his own offspring, suffering from a strain of the Sophoclean Oedipus complex. One of the queasiest ironies is that DiCaprio would be far better cast if the film chronicled all the emotional manipulations, and hubristic ploys—put simply, if he were playing the character as fully explored as Yates' Frank Wheeler, DiCaprio would probably succeed wildly in the part. As he is constructed by Haythe's screenplay and Mendes' direction, however, he nearly comes across as simply a self-pitying leaf being blown in the wind—a coward, who should stick to his principles rather than a charlatan and nebulously thuggish possessor viewing his offspring as advantageous fulcrums, beings who conveniently present him with the fait accompli he most desires.
Woody Allen's use of Brechtian narration in his newest film indicated the kind of lack of confidence of an excessively self-questioning painter, who goes ahead and mars his creation by not knowing when enough is enough. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used voice-over narration as a crutch, informing the audience what the protagonist was supposed to be feeling at any given time. If there is a film from 2008 that could have benefited enormously from good voice-over narration, it would have to be Revolutionary Road. Yates' novel is so internalized, it may be as some suggest, “unfilmable.” Though that has been said about other books, which proved to be most successfully “filmable.” While Yates allowed for the absurdity of his contrivances to remain for what they often were—humorous—Haythe and Mendes have almost no patience nor inclination for anything but lugubriousness, perhaps because in the latter's case he had already tried to blend comedy and melodrama. Here Mendes attempts to create an oozy, glacial ambiance out of the Wheelers' colorless milieu, but the affectation only makes an unpleasant story more perpetually unpleasant.
Yates used symbolism to suggest truth of his characters, studding the narrative with acute imagery, such as—April resting against furniture, against the refrigerator, and against anything else, especially when she is arguing with Frank; exceedingly friendly neighbor Shep Campbell behaving like a lovingly eager dog whenever April is around, devotedly following her; Frank having great difficulty in laying a path across the front garden; April is the woman who wants to be an actress, and cannot, while Frank's pathological guise is indicative of a natural performer; stingingly ironically, Frank is not frank at all, but rather indirect and duplicitous; Helen Givings is a giver of home; John Givings a giver of scathing veracity; and, yes, the Wheelers do spin out of control.
Haythe and Mendes seem unsure of whether or not they should simply have their stars go pre-Method or play around with stylizing the dialogue and acting. If Mendes was attempting to evoke Douglas Sirk, like Todd Haynes with Far From Heaven, he has failed miserably; Sirk's most preposterous melodramas could be relied on to deliver immense juiciness. The actors and actresses in Sirk films were made into emblematic touchstones of larger types, borderline Platonic creations, which made the immoderate climate of their conflicts make complete sense: how can restraint even be an option when greed meets loyalty one-on-one, for but one example? Sirk nevertheless fiercely held on to a sincerity and compassion for his characters, both of which are lacking here. In Revolutionary Road, even Winslet is compromised by stylization, which, for Mendes is doubtless intended to underline the rigidity, conformity and stultification of the era he believes he is depicting. That she remains watchable, whether she is confronting her husband at the beach or playing a Stepford wife one morning, speaks to her status as one of the greats on the planet. DiCaprio is a powerhouse when he's playing to his natural strengths—his suaveness, his cunning emotional trickery—but he has, for one reason or another, chosen to take parts that go directly against his gifts. Which is not to say that he is abysmal in the part, just that he is ill-suited, and, more importantly, unable to make up for the ruinous screenplay's plentiful weaknesses.
Returning to the theme of a misbegotten adaptation, it should be remembered when analyzing Yates' novel the old saw: trust the art, not the artist. Yates has publicly stated that his novel was about the crushing conformity of the 1950s that he saw, but if it could truly be boiled down to its barest essentials, it is about the delusions that cause self-destruction. “The grass is always greener,” and “No matter where you go, there you are,” have both never rung truer than when Yates' Revolutionary Road is consumed by a reader. Haythe and Mendes make their film a boorish condemnation of the 1950s, following Yates' unfortunately simplistic political paradigm rather than the saturating percipiency of personality and psyche that makes his novel a worthwhile read. The book (the first third of which or so is almost entirely gutted by Haythe's inadequate screenplay) follows Frank Wheeler, a young man who believes himself to be specially clever, and who convinces a young woman, named April, of this. Frank and his girlfriend find themselves at a crossroads when she becomes pregnant—and he utilizes this as an opportunity to wrap himself up in the purported misery of “conformity,” of “those people,” whose spiritually wan lives have become sapped of anything meaningful, all the while despising them. Stemming from his own deep-seated fear of becoming just like his father, Frank finds himself slowly coming to the realization that he has, indeed, become his father, which allows him to stew about it, and pose as a potentially remarkably clever and exceptional man, if only he did not have the child to support. Haythe and Mendes miss the argument between Frank and April about their first child, and the impulse of April's, which is to abort it, and the manipulative heartlessness of Frank, who sees in the child little more than an avenue on which to escape not “conformity” but the jolting epiphany—which he doubtless fears April will have—that he is not so clever, special or exceptional at all. April's constitution has been corrupted by her childhood, which influences her at all turns, including her inclination to terminate her children, first once and then finally again with the third child. Frank again uses her third pregnancy as an excuse for himself to stay home and not leave for Paris as they were planning—he halfheartedly dragging his feet, rationalizing his future failure as anything special as he “finds himself” as she supports him—further revealing to April just how utterly duped she was. When she says to him that he is the most beautiful thing in the world—“A man”—it is as much a verbally expressed hope that he will finally become the man he appeared, like a mirage in the desert, to be.
Lost are almost all of the intensely unpleasant personal machinations employed by Frank to remain what he perhaps subconsciously wants to be: a “mediocrity” who could always blame someone—his children will suffice—for his not becoming whatever it is he was supposed to become before they inconveniently entered his world. Yes, John Givings is still used as the device he was intended to be, sounding off on Frank's unctuous wiliness, but as amusing as the scenes in which he appears are thanks to Shannon, they, like the long, venomously argumentative battles between the Wheelers and the chilly denouement are but the mountains of the novel, which lose their greater tenor due to the film's sidestepping of the many crucial crevasses. Even scenes that work fairly well on their own—because they stick so well to Yates' novel—like the Wheelers' early roadside verbal fight, culminating in Frank bashing his Buick with his fist, or Frank attempting to use the revelation of his affair to an attractive secretary with whom he works as a way to demand jealousy and love from his wife, feel like a theatrical tableau removed from a greater, far more gratifying work.
Strange, then, that Haythe and Mendes so heedlessly take April as the central character; if she were shown to be as much the victim as the literary April, this would make more sense, but as portrayed in the film, her neurosis seems almost apart from Frank's, as though he played no significant part in shaping her adult deportment. Most viewers of Revolutionary Road will see April as a crazed woman, a preposterous figuration not distantly related from Bening's harridan. Even when it is clear April is rebelling from Frank, indulging in an affair of her own, it seems more dutifully presented than genuinely probed. Her horrified surprise when she learns that her husband is actually climbing up the ladder at his job, listening to his meek, hypocritical response to his own words about Paris (“People are alive there, not like here...”), “Paris isn't the only place where people can live,” is possibly the film's most honest scene as it relates to Yates' book. A shame, then, that for Mendes the villain is “conformity,” vacuous success and (here it finally is) suburbia.
So, discarding Yates' novel, and delving into Mendes' focus on suburbia, the question arises: has Mendes ironically bought into the same nonsensical solipsism that consumes the despicable Frank, that the true enemy to be vigilantly feared is the supposedly unbearable conformity of the suburbs? Is Mendes' Revolutionary Road as much an act of cowardly obfuscation as Frank's self-installed prison that he secretly wishes to never escape? Possibly. At least Frank is not interpreted as some sort of heroic figure like Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham—so Mendes drizzles and then finally pours as much of the finite empathy he has for any of his characters on to April, perhaps seeing this as his chance to redeem himself for making Annette Bening an intolerable cartoon of a femme realtor (here an intolerable cartoon of a femme realtor shows up periodically in Kathy Bates' Helen Givings), and allowing for the character to experience a kind of red-colored epiphany not wholly dissimilar from Lester's visions of red roses. Taken at face value, this is a failure because Mendes and Haythe have undermined their own project in making April as completely understandable as she ought to be, no matter what emotions her desires provoked, since the very central construct of the story—Frank and April's relationship—has been so woefully translated from page to screen. The proscenium is rendered imbalanced, as Frank is made out to be simply weak and April, in a way, weaker, creating a gaping vacuum at the film's fitting centripetal emptiness (the latter word is to this picture what “fear” was to Batman Begins) center, siphoning the life out of what should have been a challenging drama.
The 1950s, as an “era,” was a massive panoply of contradictions. It was the decade that has now been unceremoniously dismissed, though it paved the way for the future so many who decry it purport to cherish. The 1950s were populated by Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Elvis Presley and others. Subversive westerns were already commenting on past Hollywood oaters and viewing white/American Indian relations in more complex lights; film noirs, while returning to many of the motifs of German Expressionism, targeted institutionalized corruption with greater, more uncompromising tenacity; it was the decade of Otto Preminger's run-ins with the censors; challenging cinema, whether from the boisterously cynical Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole and The Seven-Year Itch, or Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running; the aforementioned melodramas of Sirk, The Marrying Kind, and 1960, the year before Yates' novel's publication, dealt with marital disharmony in the Kirk Douglas-Kim Novak teamer of Strangers When We Meet; mental illnesses were essayed in Home Before Dark and The Three Faces of Eve; the rise of Sidney Poitier; sci-fi was decrying nuclear annihilation through radioactive monster movies; Marlon Brando was a Wild One and James Dean was a Rebel. Jack Kerouac and John Updike (whose Couples is not dissimilar from Yates' work) belonged in this decade; literary movements as outre as “lesbian pulp fiction” blossomed.
Mendes has in a major way taken the viewpoint of Frank, in his writhing under what he seems to view as an indictment first and foremost of American conformity in the 1950s. Readers of Yates' novel should be able to see the grave error in describing the work as an uncomplicated slamming of an abstraction; if anything, the image that emerges from the book is that the obfuscating, manipulative Frank and the pathetic, unfit April are a couple of craven, conceited and saturnine boors who may deserve, at best, pity but not purloined, illegitimate identification. Frank and April are like paranoiacs who believe “those people” are soulless zombies. Gradually their fear becomes consuming, to the point where they not only have become what they believe they hate, but something far worse. American Beauty could at least be laughed off, for the silliness with which it so often waltzed, as though winking at the audience, knowing it was a socio-political platitude, a capricious fun-house mirror aimed at the culture it lampooned. Mendes' Revolutionary Road peddles pain, and damns an entire society for not being as enlightened as it should have been. Deakins' fine cinematography and Zea's cogently palpable production design manage to make a point independent from Mendes' latest assault: if the Wheelers represent any form of enlightenment, then enlightenment leads straight to the madhouse.