Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes continues his rumination on repression in suburbia (started in 1999’s American Beauty) with Revolutionary Road. That isn’t quite as big a headline grabber as “Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite for the first time since Titanic.” But the truth of the matter is, those who come to the theater looking to recapture the heart-swelling romance of Titanic are going to be sorely disappointed—shocked even. On the other hand, those hoping for an even more soul-crushing dissection of the American Dream than the one depicted in American Beauty are on the right track.
For this outing, Mendes takes Richard Yates’ celebrated 1961 novel as source material. It’s the early ’50s and upwardly mobile desk jockey Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) and his pretty wife April (Winslet) have just bought an expensive house in suburban Connecticut—mostly because it’s what’s expected of them. Every weekday like clockwork, Frank goes to work in a nondescript cubicle in an uninteresting office. April stays home, takes care of the kids and tries not to go crazy. Under this facade of everyday, “Leave It to Beaver”-style conformity, Frank and April are a seriously unhappy couple. When they first met, she dreamed of becoming an actress and he wanted to travel the world. Jobs, children and a mortgage have driven such pie-eyed yearnings from their heads. Or have they?
Frank is only able to maintain his sanity by drinking his lunches and sleeping with the occasional secretary. Though she appears to be a loyal wife and mother, April’s even worse off than her husband. Prone to vicious rows and teetering on the edge of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf territory, the couple search for a way to relieve their mounting unhappiness. The problem is, neither can come up with a different way of living. If Frank could do anything at all in the world, what would it be? The sad truth is, he’s intrigued by the question but can’t really come up with an answer.
April is the first to work out a possible solution: Ditch their too-restricted lives and run off to bohemian Paris to figure it all out. At first, Frank tries to stamp out this foolish idea, but—growing increasingly fatigued by his meaningless job—he warms to it. Why the hell not?
Given the sunlit yet gloomy tone of the film, viewers are expected to view this plan as little more than a pipe dream. Thoughts of Frank and April running off to France and becoming artists sounds great. Plenty of people probably shared that dream. Few of them actually did it. And Frank and April don’t seem like the type to pull it off.
Like American Beauty before it, Revolutionary Road is mostly a screed against soul-sucking conformity. Although modern two-income households allowed Kevin Spacey’s man-child character to comfortably retreat to his carefree teenage years, the rigid social structure of the ’50s doesn’t afford the Wheelers the same latitude. The beatniks, the hippies and the sexual revolution are going to arrive a decade too late to provide the Wheelers with any outward glimpse of change.
Revolutionary Road recalls other touchstones of the era—from the monotonous conformity of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to the humorous adultery of The Seven Year Itch. Mendes self-consciously absorbs these stories and delivers his most well-mannered directing effort to date. There are no visual tricks or narrative gimmicks here. It’s simply a well-constructed, powerfully acted film. It’s very good. But it isn’t a whole lot of fun. It wallows in some mighty weighty emotional territory and isn’t very sympathy-heavy. Both Frank and April come off as selfish, angry and rather unsure of their own lives—which is more or less the point. American Beauty looks optimistic as hell in comparison. At least that movie had video of a floating plastic bag to remind us that life has beauty (or something to that effect). Revolutionary Road only succeeds in reminding us that Ward and June Cleaver were repressed and unhappy and probably didn’t want to give birth to Wally and the Beave.