Friday, January 23, 2009

Revolutionary's Road is Tough But Worth Traveling

Grade: A-

Revolutionary Road, with its high-calibre cast, director, and source material, seemed like a shoo-in for the Oscars. But having seen it, I can't say I'm surprised by the Academy's distaste for it. The movie is, after all, extremely depressing and deeply unpleasant to watch. The fights between unhappy married couple Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) are the most brutal since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This may be the rare exception where you like the movie better having read the book first, just so you're prepared for what's coming. Oh, wait, this is supposed to be a recommendation.

So for those of you who haven't read Richard Yates' classic, the story's pretty simple. The movie, like the book, begins with a failed local play April stars in. While everyone else is able to laugh it off, Frank and April cannot. You see, the Wheelers, like so many of us, believe they are special. They are meant for more than Frank's numbingly dull job and April's ordinary suburban existence. As they fight, viciously, on the side of the road, you may think, "Is this all I'm getting for the next two hours?" But hope soon comes in April's decision to move the family to Paris. We all know it's a pipe dream, and that a change in venue won't actually solve their misery. Yet the Wheelers cling to it as a final chance at salvation before everything comes crashing down.

Justin Haythe's adaptation is shockingly faithful to its source material, with most lines straight from the book. At times I could almost hear the book's narration during pauses. Given the book's extremely interior nature, it's amazing the strategy works out so well. A lot of credit goes to director Sam Mendes. A lot of critics feel the cinematography, costumes, and art direction are too beautiful, causing the movie to feel cold.'s exactly the point!. Those shots of identically hatted men waiting for the subway aren't supposed to make you feel warm and tingly. The meticulous world Mendes creates is pretty, sure, but its real purpose is to create the claustrophobia the Wheelers feel.

All that supposed coldness in the decour makes the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet all the more stunning. Those who were expecting Titanic 2 may be disappointed, but that doesn't make the Titanic history irrelevant. DiCaprio and Winslet know each other well enough that not only is the chemistry there, but they know how far to push each other. Individually, they create characters almost exactly as I imagined them from the book. Combined, they're even better, as their mutual trust lets them go at each other with full force, making it all hit even harder.

Which is good, since even more so than in the book, the focus is all on them. Supporting characters like friends Milly (Kathryn Hahn) and Shep (David Harbour) Campbell and nosy neighbor/realtor Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) get just a few scenes. The stand-out though is surprise Oscar nominee Michael Shannon as John Givings, a mental patient and the only one to say the truth about the Wheelers. There's something Jokerish about him as he drolly cuts to the heart of their insecurities while sitting comfortably behind his armor of mental illness. When you laugh during his scenes it's not because they're funny, but they're the only release you're likely to get.

Frost/Nixon and Doubt were the two big theatrical adaptations of 2008, but in some ways Revolutionary Road feels more like a play. I don't mean like the way Doubt feels like a play, where the staginess makes it seem flat onscreen. I mean like you are actually seeing a play, and all of the actors' emotions feel immediate and powerful. So yeah, it's dramatic, depressing, and all of those other words you want to call it. But to call it a cold, pristine period piece? That must have been a different movie. Because with DiCaprio and Winslet acting at their best, there's nothing cold about it.

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