Tuesday, November 23, 2010

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008): The Despair of Sam Mendes

Kate Winslet was in probably the two most depressing movies of 2008.  The Reader was followed up by Revolutionary Road, and neither was particularly successful.  In Revolutionary Road, rather than be in despair over her character’s relationship with a fifteen year old boy, she’s merely in despair over her relationship with her husband.  I can’t say I’m surprised.  No middle aged person is ever happily married in a Sam Mendes movie.  In fact, nobody is happy with having riches and good looks beyond most individual’s imagination in one of his movies, either, even if they look like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Winslet plays April Wheeler, a singer whose talents are thwarted by raising a family with two children, a son and a daughter.  DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, a long suffering office-worker who manages to get promotions despite the fact that he’s completely bored with what he is doing.  Like every bored married couple in middle-class America during the 1950s, they have children and purchase a house in hopes that it will bring some fulfillment to their lives.  The house is located on a street called Revolutionary Road (hence the title).   Frank has an unsatisfying affair with a young female co-worker that makes her-self conveniently available anytime that Frank has just been involved with an argument with April.  April has a meaningless one-night stand in the front seat of an automobile with her handsome and talentless neighbor, Shep Campbell (David Harbour).  Frank and April devise a plan to go to Paris where Frank is to live off of April’s earnings as an executive secretary and, eventually, a singer and actress on stage.  Not surprisingly, their plans fall through for a couple of reasons: April has little chance of making this work, and Frank can’t really make up his mind that he wants to be supported by his lovely wife.  Anyway, April once again becomes pregnant and the couple decides that any plans to live in Paris at least temporarily have to be postponed.  In time, the realization that April will never achieve her plans is too much for her.  April attempts to induce an abortion while home alone, suffers a massive hemorrhage and dies.  Though at the time she seemed to temporarily have made peace with her husband, her desperate attempt to end her plight in such a manner convinces the audience otherwise.

I will say this for this 119 minute movie: DiCaprio and Winslet do convincingly play unhappy people.  (No question that these two individuals can act.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the acting of everyone else in the movie – especially Kathy Bates here playing a type as the gossipy neighbor.)   Like so many depressed people, the various reasons for Frank and April’s despair are not all that obvious.  I don’t question the movie’s premise that there is more to life than good looks and the outward appearances of a happy marriage.  It is suggested that this charming couple can hide their troubles well - except they are never successful in covering up their problems with the individuals they become sexually involved with, with each other, or with the movie audience that is being bludgeoned with all the sordid details of the couple’s matrimony.  We hear other characters time and again talk about how April and Frank must be the happiest of couples.  This is a typical example of Sam Mendes supposedly subtle direction.  Anyway, other than the quaint little house that the couple purchased on Revolutionary Road, Mendes never gives us any hint that the couple has ever been satisfied with anything else.  Undoubtedly, many good looking and upper middle-classed individuals are unhappy, though so are many poor and homely individuals as well.  Not in any movie has Mendes ever convincingly demonstrated why his characters version of self-pity is superior to that of anyone else.  There is something about middle-classed America that really bothers this director, but he doesn’t know how to demonstrate this without showing the couple yelling at each other and having affairs that everyone in the audience knows in advance will be unfulfilling.

As I write this review, I am visiting the city of Hyderabad, India – a city in many ways typical of India in that contained within its boundaries is some of the most extreme poverty of anywhere in the world.  It also contains individuals more desperately in need of help than Frank and April ever will be and who are in about every respect more deserving of our sympathy.  Naturally, most Americans don’t know that this city of several million people even exists.  We seem to feel we have more important things to dwell upon than children starving themselves to death.  After all, we have couples that can’t live a luxurious lifestyle in Paris because the raising of their children will get in the way. 

I do know what Mendes is trying to say because I could feel sorry for an individual like April.  In 1950s’ America, women were greatly limited from being able to show off their talent.  And obviously such thwarted desire will cause friction with the person she loves.  However, despite its title, there is nothing revolutionary about this movie.  Mendes does not offer any credible solution for this couple’s unhappiness outside of an illegal self-induced abortion that also induces death.  Mendes does seem to imply that this rather worthless couple as far as contributions to society go should have the money and free time to run off to Paris and fulfill their every dream.  And this should happen without any possibility of hardship.  That’s just not the world we live in.  That’s not the world that any couple from any society in history lives in except through incredible luck or a large inheritance.

Like that other movie directed by Sam Mendes called American Beauty, the troubles of the main characters are apparently the final say in everything.  At least here the ending was not quite as manufactured as it was in American Beauty.  No latent homosexual neighbor comes over to mysteriously shoot the main character in the head.  So Revolutionary Road is a slightly better movie than that.  That still says very little for Revolutionary Road as a film.

July 8, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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