Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)



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.

41 comments:

FilmDr said...

A thought-provoking review. I haven't seen the film, but I am not entirely surprised by your disappointment given the massive problems with Mendes' American Beauty, a movie that still gives me the willies. The Yates novel will still endure as a classic, although it is a shame that the film adaptation will affect how people view the book. I especially enjoyed your summary of the film culture of the 1950s. The decade helped inspire Mad Men, so it can't be all bad.

Sam Juliano said...

TESTING

Sam Juliano said...

Well, Alexander, this is certainly a defining review here at Coleman's Corner in Cinema. It's defining in a number of ways, but perhaps most tellingly in it's extraordinarily successful thrust to integrate the film into the cultural mores of it's time period. One of this massively comprehensive essay's most impressive sections presents an overview of 50's cinema, which includes the work of Sirk, Wilder, Minelli, and the oft-prevelent topics: science-fiction, mental illness, rebellion, and the advent of the likes of Keroac and company. Your integration of links to your own reviews of the past six weeks or so to supplement the discourse with comprehensive reference points within the cinematic pantheon is utterly remarkable. It is enthusiasm at the highest level, and it excites the reader too. Included among the corresponding film reviews here are deft treatments of some classic film noirs set in this period and the film CADILLAC RECORDS, which showcases Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley among others. Of course in any earlier section of the review, Mr. Coleman has kind words for Sirk's 50's melodramas, and particularly for Todd Haynes, FAR FROM HEAVEN, which is my personal favorite film since the advent of the new millenium.
It is indeed lamentable that you endured "disillusionment, dissapointment and discomfort" while watching REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but I'll admit I have not come to Coleman's Corner today to defend this film, which did not make my Top 10, nor honorable mention list. My site colleague, the erudite and usually tough-to-please Allan Fish gave this film high marks after seeing it stateside during his recent visit here from the U.K., but I have not and do not share his enthusiasm, even if I am not quite as severe on it as you. But knowing your uncompromising sentiments on AMERICAN BEAUTY (a film I definitely like quite a bit more than you do) I fully understand your position here. And who, pray tell would contest your no-holds barred defense for your serious issues with the film?
Hence, this "turgid trip into solipsism" and "boorish condemnation of the 50's" is aptly laid at the doorstep of director Mendes, who "makes an unpleasant story more perpetually unpleasant" in his transcription of the respected Yates novel.
I join with you in issuing commendations for both Roger Deakins' typically textured cinematography, particularly his interior lighting, which you then credit Mendes with in trying to establish the "achromatic environs of an insane asylum...bathing his characters in the backround of whiteness." Still, you crticize this as "phoniness and sterile plasticity that became resented in the 50's."
But perhaps the most startling aspect of this definitive examanation of the film has to do with the deliriously-lauded lead performances, which you take to serious task. You thought Winslet was solid enough, in spite of your issue with mendes making her "a crazed woman" which is in violation of the literary work's tenants. I agree with you that Ms. Winslet was more impressive in THE READER, but of course I am a big fan of that Stephen Daldry film. As I recall you lament that Mendes presents Winslet in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD as "compromised by stylization." Most interesting point there
With Di Caprio, you are admittedly far less kind. However, I can't really offer a counter-argument to your criticisms, which leads me to believe you are probably right. In any case I must wholeheartedly agree with one point you make without looking back: "Di Caprio lacks a miraculous internalizing depth." and that he is not in a league with the likes of Albert finney, Richard Burton and Erland josephson in their seminal marital-discord films. Your final disclaimer on the performance of Leo who plays Frank as "a self-pitying leaf being blown in the wind...a coward" is that you suggest Michael Shannon, the erstwhile scene-stealer who fueled the film's centerpiece dinner-table sequence, should have auditioned for the lead. Yet as presented in his supporting role you assert that Mendes' use of the character is "an embarrassing hoary construct." Brilliant thought there!
Likewise, I fully concur with you on the misfire of the "voice-over" basically for the stipulations you pose. And I agree the usually-reliable composer Thomas Newman has rehashed old themes here.

It's truly ironic that perhaps the greatest review ever written by Alexander Coleman (certainly no other can match this one's exhaustive treatment and fecund insights--a few others do come close though!) is in the service of a bad film. But it's a testament to it's author's tenaciousness and sense of fair play not to dismiss an unfavored film (as so many others do) with a few paragraphs, instead opting to mount an inspired negative defense.

It's simply masterful.

Alexander Coleman said...

FilmDr, thank you very much. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. Sam Mendes and I seem to not mesh well. I agree that Yates' novel, flaws and all, will endure as a classic. Good point about Mad Men; I still need to watch that show!

Sam, thank you so much for the remarkably detailed and insightful thoughts. I'm actually fairly moved because I knew you liked the film, at least, and you were more than gracious in reading a rather harsh critique of it. And thank you for the kind words about the review's length--I kept thinking it was too long, perhaps especially for a negative review, but I finally admitted to myself that, since I was probing the film in no small measure as its standing as an adaptation, this needed to be long. And I didn't want to simply "dismiss it" with a few paragraphs. So thank you so much for the detailed examination of my thoughts. Yes, I do believe there are some excellent parts, but just not enough, and the film's deeply problematic adapting of Yates' novel simply cannot be overlooked. It is for this that DiCaprio's performance hits the same emotional beats, over and over, without revealing the sides of Frank that make him a far more interesting character in the novel.

Thank you, Sam. And like you, I hope Kate Winslet wins as many awards as she can for The Reader, in which she is truly divine.

So, thank you very much for the very kind words, and cheers!

Kevin J. Olson said...

Alexander:

Great explication of the films major problems. Two days removed from seeing it and I'm still thinking about it, for better or worse, it has remained a somewhat memorable film experience for me.

I don't know if that's because I wanted it to succeed so badly based on the fine performances that were derailed by Mendes inept direction. So often I wanted to scream at the screen "I get it! They're trapped, quit telling us they're trapped!"

Shannon's performance is memorable and a breath of fresh air, and he hits his scenes out of the park, the only problem with him is that he is just reiterating what the audience has already figured out since the first ten minutes of the film; I felt like I was on one of the hamster wheels.

I disagree with you about DiCaprio's casting though. Hindered by the script, he still managed to inwardly convey some deep emotion when Mendes would allow for silence in lieu of Oscar Bait screaming matches. The scene where Frank comes home after some afternoon delight is wonderfully played by DiCaprio as we see his reaction to what he's created while his kids sing happy birthday to him; it's at this point, and really only this point, that the film slows down to allow the audience to try and figure something out for themselves. And I think a lot of that is because of DiCaprio's acting.

You're right about this being Mendes rehashing American Beauty's immature observations (minus the sitcom humor littered throughout Beauty) and just placing them in 1950's suburbia. Nothing felt fresh or surprising to me, nothing was worth being invested in, and for as obvious a metaphor as Shannon's John was, I liked him and wished Mendes would have spent more time on him.

I haven't read the Yates novel, but it's not surprising to hear that a lot of the dialogue seemed lifted from the page and was given to the actors to merely recite. Some of the arguments felt so stale and obligatory that I checked out through most of them until they finally cut away from the scene.

Lastly, the ending felt way too long for me, and I would have loved a more ambiguous ending. Without giving too much away, I would have liked for them to omit the final scenes and simply cut to black when April asks Frank whether or not he wants his eggs fired or scrambled. Sure there would have been a major moment missed, but who didn't see that major moment happening (especially when you consider the formula for films like these)? I'm sure they were already taking liberties with the source material, so why not cut the predictable, manipulative coda off of the film and make it a little more ambiguous? Does she fall back into her roll, or does she simply conceit and find herself within her hollow shell?

I don't know. I'm still thinking about it....so that says something about the movie I guess.

Great review.

Kevin J. Olson said...

And that should say concede at the end of my post, not conceit. Woops.

Alexander Coleman said...

Kevin, thank you for the kind thoughts and number of engaging points about the film.

I almost included a little passage about the birthday singing scene, as I believe it was, in a way, DiCaprio's best moment. His wan gaze, his eyes beaming, his recognition--it is like you say one of the screenplay's best moments. But. And this is an important but: it truly seemed to suggest a different part, and when I saw that Mendes kept making Frank "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," the scene retroactively turned me off. It's DiCaprio's best, quietest scene in many ways, but it ended up being emblematic of Mendes' strategy, which was to heighten the morose tragedy of the characters rather than deeply examining them. That said, it was, by itself, a good moment.

And here I go agreeing with you again: as obvious as Shannon's character, John Givings, is, I wish Mendes--if he was determined to keep him--had further explored the character. As it is, he's in the film just long enough to state the obvious, and leave a good impression--but he's rendered all the more a device and little else. Which is a shame because Shannon's performance was potent. He devouered what he was given, in any case.

As for the denouement, yes, even if you haven't read the book, I imagine the conclusion is transparently predictable. The sterility, the ascepticism of it (with attendant orange juice), makes for something of a short film unto itself. To be completely hoenst, though, I was just glad it was near the ending at that point, as the film was such a misguided effort to retell Yates' story.

Yes, Mendes did continue his American Beauty preoccupations, in just about every manner. Even if one takes away Yates' novel as a point against the film, I found Revolutionary Road similarly ugly in its conclusions, what with their emphasis on blaming the abstractions about which the Wheelers continually speak for their misery. I've just begun reading a couple of professional critics' reviews and it seems as though, due to the film's unfortunate disregard for the greater context of its characters' actions, they interpret the film as just another condemnation of "the suburbs," which is a maddening simplification encouraged by the film at every turn at the expense of richer and deeper truths.

Thank you again for the kind word and thoughtful comment, Kevin.

tim watts said...

I've never read the novel Revolutionary Road but you make the case that the movie is a dishonorable adaptation. That is too bad. Maybe I will wait for the DVD. I cannot describe how much I hate American Beauty.

Tony D'Ambra said...

A passionate and deeply analytical review, Alexander.

Many who see this film will have not read the novel, and I wonder whether it is quite fair to demand such a high degree of fidelity to it. In looking at a film, I think we first need to see it as a self-contained artefact - what you see on the screen is what you get. Taking this perspective, Revolutionary Road, contrary to my expectations, impressed me. The acting is fine, the artistic direction excellent, the direction accomplished, and while the screenplay moves too slowly, it is substantive and lets the story unfold unhindered by weighty symbolism or rhetoric.

I don't agree that a voice-over narrative is needed - indeed, like in our own lives, how well do we really know or understand ourselves let alone others? Ambiguity and ambivalence enrich this picture. The situation and the angst portrayed are very real and not confined to the 50s. What is of interest is the dynamic of reconciliation with life that we must all make. Each takes his or her own torturous route, and there is no winning or losing, only a path.

As Joni Mitchell wrote:

"From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all"

Alexander Coleman said...

Interesting counterpoints, Tony. If the film worked for you as is, as it has for many others, I cannot question its efficacy. I still have very significant problems with the film, beyond the issues of the adaptation of Yates' novel. Nevertheless, you bring forth a most sound defense for it.

Thank you for the kind words.

Tim, you may want to see it soon, just to see where you land yourself.

Screenwriters said...

Its a great review. Many points were covered. I really felt like watching the movie.

Thanks
Jessica

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Jessica.

aleex colemaan said...

i would just like to give a heads up of my next fil m review ---ZOO

Alexander Coleman said...

?

jennybee said...

Beautifully written. Your writing always dazzles me a little. I think reading more of your reviews will help me with my GRE prep, too. : )

Your comment about the book essentially being about the internal delusions that cause our self-destruction is spot-on. That may also be why I love the book so much; I know a bit about that phenomenon myself.

I still haven't seen the film, but when I first heard about the casting, it sounded ideal. If diCaprio isn't wildly successful in the role here, I am tempted to blame it on the screenplay and directing choices that favor April over Frank. He's got the chops, and could have been phenomenal in it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very, very much, Jennybee. You are always far too kind! :-)

As a fellow reader of the book, I am most sincerely happy to hear you (no, read you) align with my own thoughts about it.

As for DiCaprio, I think he truly would have been a Frank for the ages if the film had properly adapted the book. Now, I know--that is, in a way, a cop-out, working as it does from the annoyingly nebulous and doughy nothingness of a "what-if?" It's almost meaningless. Yet...

DiCaprio has proven in several films that he is a great emotional manipulator as an actor (both in films whose narratives are explicitly demanding this trait from the character he is playing and when it is more subconscious, or, best of all worlds, simultaneously capturing the audience and other characters' sympathy)--it's his most natural gift, a little like a less obviously athletic Errol Flynn.

If this film's screenplay simply had more of the book's Frank, manipulating April at almost every turn, I'm sure DiCaprio would have been stronger than he is. Like you, I suspect that Mendes' direction is also partly at fault; he tries to make Frank pathetic rather than scheming, a miserable victim rather than Yates' complete, more complex vision. As such, DiCaprio continues to play the same emotional beats and the performances dissipates.

In any case, thank you very much, Jennybee. :-)

tim watts said...

This is how you write a negative review folks! Terrific job. I have not read the book but your review is a true cerebral feast. Amazing.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Tim--like Jennybee, you're too far kind as well.

Strike that "s" at the end of "performance" in my last comment's second-to-last sentence!

mc said...

You have examined where the film falls short of Richard Yates' novel and have supplied ample evidence of your position. Very thoughtful and interesting review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, mc.

vanessa said...

I have not read the book Revolutionary Road but your insights here are great. I did see the movie. Meh. I didn't think much of it. But your review has provided a great context for it. Great work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the very kind words, vanessa. If the film didn't grab you--or even if it did--I would recommend the book.

Related to this review, I have seen the news of John Updike's passing today. RIP.

ron said...

this movie annoyed the crap outta me.

OUTSTANDING review, man. so on target it hurts.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved this film. It should not be disected to death like you have just done. The movie was meant to affect you, and it sure as hell affected me.
You must be some sad man who lives a sad little life. You KNOW you made mistakes and your too afraid to start over. Now your just typing movie reviews on a simple little blog to simple little people. Hell, I don't even know why I'm here. I'm just sad that you thought the movie was so bad. Including American Beauty. Come on, get real with yourself. Who are YOU fooling...?
Yes, only yourself.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, ron.

I'm glad to hear you liked and were "affected" by the film, Anonymous.

the police said...

we are looking for anonymous. if anyone has any information please call us immediately as he is dangerous and bold. all young boys under the age of 8 are in danger. and by the way, just because you like little boys doesn't mean anybody body else is a sad simple person for not liking them

ll kool j said...

AC don't get rattled yo. gotta respect dat.

Alexander Coleman said...

Um, thanks, LL.

Maria said...

One thing Alexander is NOT is a little man. He's too modest and nice and gentlemanly to say anything but I love that about him! You go Alexander!

Alexander Coleman said...

Okay, Maria, I shall go... somewhere. :)

Anonymous said...

This is my second time writing (I also commented your essay on Frost/Nixon last month)... To begin with, Mr. Coleman, another startling comprehensive piece. I read the novel a long time ago, and then again in the past few months. I do like the film slightly more than you apparently do, although you raise many unassailable questions about the work. This is just an impression, and perhaps not even a defensible one, but what strikes me about Mendes's adaptation is that he seems to come at the story from the outside in - that is, his commentary about the era, suburbia, American culture seems to be the focus, and the characters of Frank and April are seemingly merely fit into this agenda. The book, on the other hand, seemed to dig in from the beginning, detailing the lives of these two people, allowing them (if one chose to see them this way) to stand for the culture and time period or whatever metaphorical significance one wanted to attach to these individuals and/or their lives together... Once the fervor over American Beauty died down, and the film began to disintegrate with repeated viewing and critical circumspection, it became clear that Mendes was sneering at his characters (at us?), who were barely recognizable as human beings. While, as you state, it's harder to laugh this film off, perhaps that makes it all the more pernicious. It's hard to ignore, anyway, a kind of kind of arch/ puppet-master quality to the work that is a bit off-putting. Maybe the art production quality (from Deakins et al) is simply too pristine (granted, likely intentional), although one wonders if evocation of period can be too well done ... but perhaps that's part of it... the acting, the sets, the scene construction (even when April and Frank are screaming at one another) is all very craftily molded (like a well-turned out stage production) and somehow the interaction isn't messy or gut-wrenching or truly painful enough anywhere. Unlike Sirk (and later Haynes's homage) there is no commentary being made through form - other than perhaps of the most obvious kind. The film is delivered straight, but without empathy, and with derision, so no matter how competent or brilliant (depending on one's viewpoint) the acting might be the characters are always being condescended to in little and big ways. Lacking any of the humor or self-realization that was evident in the book Mendes is allowed to use these over-simplified characters to confirm whatever point he is trying to make about the period, the world of suburbia, American values, family life, etc. Yates wrote about people with twisted emotional make-ups - "little" people perhaps - pretentious; self-involved; deluded; arrogant; entitled; desperate; disaffected, and a whole bunch of other things, but they were very real. I don't think Mendes considers April and Frank to be real - I think he believes himself to be better than them, and thus, better than the vast majority of the audience who views his film. That's a problem.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Anonymous, thank you once again for a truly fantastic comment here.

I believe your exceedingly well-written case makes much sense. Unfortunately, Sam Mendes does indeed condescend to his characters, as you call it (I think this is an especially piquant and brilliant insight on your part). His films lack vitality because of the reasons you list--they play like, well, plays (how strangely fitting it is that April is starring in one in the story: the rest of the film's most nominally emotional scenes suffer from the limitations of filmed stage acting, a charge that was leveled at Elia Kazan with A Streetcar Named Desire, but there the subtleties of Williams' play almost entirely remained, at least compared to the significant loppings off of important pieces of character information and background which Yates so meticulously covers in his book). As you say, Revolutionary Road consistently feels like (I'd contend, at best) a well turned-out stage production, and the distance that, ironically, Deakins' work both complements and tends to easily outshine, seems to stem from Mendes' lack of empathy for the "little" people about whom you write (and most wonderfully note were at the heart of Yates' fiction).

Boiled down to its essential ingredients, I would say that Mendes and the screenplay mistook Yates' novel in all of its moral intricacies for a relatively simplistic condemnation of American suburbia in the 1950s (which is a vastly more tired and boring issue at this juncture in any event). For Mendes, it seems like another dramatic experiment--not unlike American Beauty, and like you say, Anonymous, the similarities and differences in the two films tend to respectively confirm our shared thesis on Mendes' artistic sensibilities. However, I believe you have struck an a yet undiscovered nerve of this entire film as adaptation, which is that the film's very humorlessness makes it only more pernicious. What humor there is (such as the final scene) is quite acerbic, bordering on just flat-out bitter, and it may have worked on its own but when it's (yet again, like American Beauty) at the expense of a two-dimensional cartoon character like Kathy Bates in this film, it's more pathetic than anything else. With Revolutionary Road Mendes seems to be trying to have more of his cake and eat it, too, than even in American Beauty, as nearly everything is presented in sharply tragic terms with an air of depression and angst, but then Mendes awkwardly brings in the cynical humor which encourages exactly the syndrome about which you are writing, Anonymous--chiefly, he is (and is encouraging us to) laugh at the pitiful characters. However, ultimately this is a highly confused response--because Revolutionary Road in Mendes' hands plays, at least structurally, more like Greek tragedy with doomed fates rather than the psychologically dexterous portrait Yates wrote. Thank you once again for the fine, probing and erudite comment, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Coleman - thank you for your gracious response. Not surprisingly, you have made me think more about the film, and I actually feel a little bit saddened by it now (not something I felt before) because I think the novel was important (in the same way that something like Updike's Rabbit Angstrom series or Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe books are) - there's some capturing of zeitgeist or something along those lines that most great modern literary fiction seems to share, and their respective author's restraint (against the tide of over ambition maybe?) is part of what makes them great (maybe that's another way of saying they benefit from humility?). I think there's perhaps a lack of humility here in the screenplay and in the film's direction, and that's too bad, because I think (though you might disagree) that Mendes is clearly talented from a technical standpoint, and one can see the underpinnings of a potentially great film here. There's nothing wrong with audaciousness in art, of course, but this is something different, and there seems to be a thread running through his (admittedly limited) film work. I hate to employ the word pretentious, because so often I think it's an easy catch-all (for instance Magnolia is nothing if not pretentious, although it is also intermittently brilliant... if not altogether cohesive), but there just seems to be a yearning for grand statement that stretches what could be satisfyingly self-contained material. You so eloquently talk about Mendes (and the screenplay) mistaking the novel as a simplistic condemnation of 1950s America and I think that's at the heart of the problem here... and knowing that he made American Beauty it's that much harder to rid oneself of the idea of that being the very agenda before he read the novel, and/or before he made the film. In some ways this painting of one dimensional characters is the exact opposite of what Yates seemed to be after, having spent an entire novel painstakingly delineating the multi-layered motivations of complicated human beings. Mendes mocks the Kathy Bates character to close the film, thusly mocking the society/period he condemns, but the real story had nothing to do with the era or neighborhood April and Frank lived in - it had everything to do with their internal lives... Thank you for noting Streetcar, which is probably one of the few examples of a film that is completely "stagey" and yet somehow (the power of Brando maybe?) is still a great film in its own right. One wonders if Kazan was a cutting-edge deconstructionist (or was it just budget?), because there is seemingly something more there than bad production design. Von Trier obviously is obsessed with the notion, though to varied success in my estimation... though perhaps that is best left for another day. Mr. coleman, thanks again for taking the time to respond. Look forward to catching up with some of your latest pieces.

Alexander Coleman said...

You're most welcome, Anonymous and thank you for the incisive and wonderful follow-through.

I agree that Mendes has considerable technical talent--and he has chosen some of his collaborators quite wisely, including the aforementioned Deakins in his latest picture and of course the late Conrad Hall for American Beauty and Road to Perdition.

And I'm one with you on the use of the pretentious--I try to not use it myself, because it is a catch-all, or at least typically is, but sometimes no other word will suffice. (Consequently, in a long discussion about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I found myself resorting to using the word, because the film's "message" seemed so... almost comically overwrought, and the film just could not nearly match the supposed theme. Which is both true of Revolutionary Road, but here the theme is, if to be weighed against Yates' intentions, rather fraudulent to the very enterprise.)

I too think much of Streetcar's lasting power emanates from Brando's incendiary performance (as well as the other performers). I'm in agreement with you about Kazan being a deconstructionist, too, insofar as his films were regularly characterized by a defiance of genre while playing with archetype(s)--and this melange was usually highly successful.

I agree that Magnolia, which I've long considered extraordinarily uneven and predominantly incohesive, does have almost indisputable moments of brilliance. (As such, I found it to be a step forward for Paul Thomas Anderson after Boogie Nights, which seemed like such an achingly obvious yearning to be his generation's Scorsese.)

As you state, though, Mendes fumbles the ball in his easy, almost patting-himself-on-the-back gratification of making fun of the Kathy Bates character, and through her, society, writ large. This thematic confusion (the screenplay does have John Givings (Michael Shannon) condemn the Wheelers for their neuroses and self-imprisoning reflexes, but at the same time the film wants to play the proverbial violin for them--if only the crushing conformity of 1950s American suburbia didn't intrude on their effort to free themselves. (The film's poster even reads, "How do you break free without breaking apart?")

In any event, thank you once again for providing me with this most stimulating exchange, Anonymous, and I look forward to your future thoughts at Coleman's Corner.

Anonymous said...

...Mr. Coleman, in relation to Michael Shannon's character - you quite rightly point out that his two relatively brief appearances (and I agree he was brilliant given what he was presented) essentially amount to a kind of slightly out of place parlor trick, which seriously undermines what he has to say... You quite brilliantly point out that Mendes would have been better-off dropping the character than using him the way he was used (something I would have never though of)... When I mentioned deconstructing in relation to Kazan I was half-kidding, wondering if he was trying to comment through purposefully making Streetcar less cinematic, but yes, I guess directors working within the Hollywood system who "overcame" genre constrictions were, in fact, deconstructing in their own right... Thanks for pointing out Mendes's association with the late great Conrad Hall - you're right, the man sure doesn't cheat himself when choosing DPs... wow, "if only the crushing conformity of 1950s American suburbia didn't intrude on their effort to free themselves." Thank you again for helping me understand this film in a way I would not have otherwise.

Alexander Coleman said...

You're most naturally welcome, Anonymous, but I must credit you with allowing me to expand on my own thoughts, as well as digest your keen insights into this film (and film in general, haha).

Deconstructionist is probably, today, the wrong word for Kazan--especially as we typically hear it in association with guys like Tarantino. However, as you state, Anonymous, the issue of working through genre and expressing personal artistic individuality was a major concern then.

Yes, Mendes certainly knows which directors of photography to use for his films, in any event.

Harold said...

WOW! When you go after a film Coleman you really do a great, detailed job of it. Very thorough, and backed up to the hilt. This comment section is one of the best ones I've ever seen too. My head is exploding from all the brilliance!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Harold. Glad you enjoyed all of this.

Moses Hernandez said...

I just finally caught up with this mighty review, Alexander. As always, your work is exceptional. Huge, deep, rigorous. You bring everything into crystal clear focus.

I have to agree with you about DiCaprio. It's not that he was bad. It's just that wasn't the best fit for the role. Or at least, not to me anyway. But Kate Winslet is something else. I have to say I thought she gave a good performance.

Sam Mendes annoys me too but some of his weakest tendencies seemed initially less damaging here. I can't stand AMERICAN BEAUTY and this movie has alot of the same problems but at least there was some more seriousness to the whole thing.

But your whole larger point about the 1950s being pigeonholed as a time of unending conformity nails it. I'm not saying the 1950s were paradise but Hollywood can't seem to look at it thru any lens but "look how lame everything was!"

Michael Shannon is alright here but man he rocked my world in SHOTGUN STORIES. Too bad nobody saw that one.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Moses. I appreciate the kind words.

I agree that DiCaprio isn't a disaster in the part, but he did not succeed, either. I'll sound like a broken record here, but I just wish DiCaprio had been given the opportunity to shine in that DiCaprio way. There are a few scenes that do that, but too few. Ironically, Mendes should have been more ruthless in exposing the self-made facade at his characters' emotional cores and hearts, and he pulled away.

However, I'll agree with you that Kate Winslet was as effective, or at least nearly so, as she could be in this picture. (I still prefer her performance in The Reader... I have problems with both films, however.)

And Michael Shannon, although quite effective in this portrayal, truly does deserve his accolades for Shotgun Stories.

Thank you once again, Moses.

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