The peasants are revolting
In the opening scene of Revolutionary Road, the new movie directed by Sam Mendes and adapted by Justin Haythe from Richard Yates’ novel, Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets April Johnson (Kate Winslet) at a bohemian party in New York some time shortly after World War II. April says she’s studying to be an actress, while Frank is about to start work as a night cashier at a cafeteria. “I don’t mean how you make money,” April says, “I mean what are you interested in?” “Honey,” Frank says, “if I had the answer to that one, I bet I’d bore us both to death in half an hour.” As things turn out, Frank never does figure out what he’s really interested in, and it takes the movie an hour and 59 minutes to deliver on Frank’s threat.
From that first heady moment of budding romance, the movie cuts abruptly to the mid-1950s, with Frank watching stone-faced as April, now his wife, stars in a wretched amateur play in a school auditorium, and they squabble viciously about it in the car on the way home. So much for April’s dreams of being an actress. Frank himself is now a mid-level, vaguely dissatisfied office drone. They both feel trapped and unhappy, but April thinks she has the answer: Frank will quit his job and they’ll sell their suburban home, then move with their two kids to Paris, where April will find a high-paying secretarial job to support them while Frank explores his options to become the man she knows he can be. How circumstances and their own limitations conspire to derail their inchoate dreams comprises the substance of the movie.
Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, was Yates’ first novel. It got glowing reviews and was shortlisted for the National Book Award, but Yates was never a big seller and all of his books were out of print by the time he died in 1992, at 66. Since then, his reputation (if not his sales) has grown to the point where his debut novel could engage the attention of talents like Mendes, DiCaprio and Winslet. But while Revolutionary Road may have felt fresh and perceptive in 1961, and the book may still read that way, the movie feels stale and predictable. To those familiar with the likes of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, No Down Payment, Ordinary People, The Ice Storm or Far From Heaven—not to mention Mendes’ own American Beauty—the observations in Revolutionary Road feel inspired less by real life than by other movies.
Just as Mendes and Haythe leap from that first meeting to the bitchfest over April’s play without showing that Frank and April were ever well matched or happy together, they never establish that the Wheelers have any real reason to be dissatisfied with their cozy middle-class suburban life. It’s a question of uncertain tone; Frank and April speak in vapid platitudes (“I just want to feel really alive,” “I guess we’re running away from the hopeless emptiness of the whole life around here”), but is it because they’re banal people, or just because Justin Haythe has written banal lines for them?
There’s an undertone of snobbery, too, in the movie’s attitude that’s off-putting, as if placing two pedigreed stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in middle-class 1950s suburbia is all it takes to prove that they deserve better. (For that matter, Sam Mendes seems to regard acting in an amateur schoolhouse play as roughly equivalent to the Fourth Circle of Dante’s Hell. Thanks for the insight, Mr. Big Shot stage and screen director.)
Not that there isn’t an aura of class and serious intentions, but it’s awfully glib. For instance, Mendes scores Frank and April’s first meeting to the strains of the Ink Spots’ “The Gypsy,” juxtaposing the soundtrack with visuals that evoke Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” In the world according to Sam Mendes, complexity is achieved by dual layers of popular music.
While Richard Yates himself was a member of the 1950s middle class and may well have known whereof he wrote, there’s something distasteful about 21st-century Hollywood millionaires disdaining the lives of their forebears half a century back. Today’s Hollywood artists often seem happiest when detailing the empty lives of the people who used to come to see their movies.