It's hard to ignore the Oscar polish involved in Revolutionary Road; an Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes, reunites the stars of the Oscar-gobbling Titanic. To that end, Mendes does his best to make the film look serious and prestigious. And if you give it a cursory glance it's possible to come away with the impression that it is indeed a great and important film. But in truth, it's both relentlessly grim and nearly pointless.
It's "nearly" pointless because the subject matter -- that the suburbs have mutated and destroyed the American spirit -- has already been covered, many, many times in far better films, ranging from scary (Blue Velvet) to romantic (Far from Heaven) to funny (Edward Scissorhands). In a way, those outside genre elements helped keep the material from becoming overbearing. For Revolutionary Road, Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe have adapted a novel by Richard Yates, which was groundbreaking for its time; Yates wrote it in 1961 when polite society just didn't discuss such things as infidelity, ennui, drugs and booze and insanity. But Mendes creates a period picture and thus fails to justify why the material is still relevant in 2008, especially when this stuff has by now become its own movie subgenre. (Click on "Suburban Dysfunction" at allmovie.com.) The main factor for Mendes is that it's an "important novel." Never mind why -- or when.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Wheeler, who meets April (Kate Winslet) at a party. They flirt and it sounds like they're going to have some great adventures. Next thing anyone knows, they've got a nice house and a couple of daughters (the daughters are seen once or twice and then, for some annoying reason, disappear from the entire film). Frank finds a job in some firm having something to do with adding machines, and April does the laundry and makes coffee. Occasionally they meet the neighbors for lots and lots of booze (martinis in particular) and cigarettes. Occasionally one of them slips off with a neighbor or a co-worker for some quick, meaningless sex. (They have to numb their agonized souls, see...)
The twist here comes when April figures out that, if they sell all their stuff, they can afford to live in Europe for a year without working. Then Frank can figure out what he wants to do with his life. (The Cary Grant character in Holiday, from all the way back in 1938, had this same idea.) The very thought of this escape makes the couple happier and brings them closer together. But this happiness leads to two snags: April gets pregnant again and Frank gets a juicy promotion, making it much tougher for them to pack up and go.
But here comes the movie's weirdest element: Kathy Bates plays Helen Givings, their real estate agent, who insists on keeping in touch and dropping by with little gifts. She confesses to April that she has a grown son, John (Michael Shannon), who resides in an asylum. April says she'd like to meet him, and Helen seems relieved. John visits twice, once when Frank and April have decided to leave and again after they've ended up staying. Both times he can "see through" the situation, saying out loud all the things that have been left unsaid. It's a very precious gimmick, that only the "insane" guy can tell the truth in this repressed world. And just in case we don't get it, the movie spells it out for us later in dialogue. Besides that, it doesn't make any sense, since why -- in this repressed world -- would Helen ever admit to having an insane son? (Ironically, Shannon is the movie's only breath of fresh air, and he's getting some award buzz for his performance.)
Mendes keeps his tone very serious and very gray, with no humor whatsoever and lots of pauses in the awkward conversations. Normally, I like this kind of ebb and flow in films, but Mendes conducts the rhythm not as beats (up and down, with rest spaces in-between) but as dead spaces within the same dreary, constant tone. Roger Deakins provides the gray, flat cinematography, oddly juxtaposing the rich work he did in Doubt, which used weather and textures to enhance the story. Then we have the performances, which, in their seriousness, will probably earn a few awards. But DiCaprio seems too baby-faced for this grown-up era, and far too aware of his performance. Winslet now seems much older than him (she's a year younger), and their Titanic chemistry is all but gone (not that this movie was going to attract many Titanic fans anyway).
It's puzzling to consider that Mendes tackled very similar themes in American Beauty (1999), making tons of money and winning an Oscar. But American Beauty was at the very least smart and snarky and funny with a few genuinely lovely and/or sexy moments thrown in. When Lester Burnham drops out of society, it looks like fun. And yet, at the end of the movie, it clearly conveys the same ideas conveyed here (you can't drop out because society disapproves). Revolutionary Road fails to make the idea of dropping out either attractive or relevant. It fails to find any humor, tension or release in its situation. It fails to make this family and their friends feel plausible. The only thing it does really well is create a feeling of suffocation. Which leads to an idea: if you can't drop out of society, you can a least find happiness by dropping out of this movie.