*Revolutionary Road (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road is one of the most staggering literary experiences I've had in years; I just didn't see it coming. Sure, I picked it up as I do most of my fiction reading because I knew a little about the movie version on the way. But I was several chapters into its jagged, stomach-punch evisceration of a mid-1950s marriage before I noted that it was written in 1961.
This wasn't someone writing from a comfortable distance about the post-war era. Two generations before the likes of Mad Men, here was a writer who saw something crumbling behind the shiny, shallow surfaces of American prosperity.
I'm not sure what audiences trained to react to the late '50s and early '60s with a faintly superior sense of irony will make of this pitch-perfect adaptation by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and screenwriter Justin Haythe. Perhaps it will seem familiar in its bleak perspective, except that bleakness isn't really what Revolutionary Road is about. Like Yates' novel, it captures the soul-crushing impact of compromise not in the sense of collaboration, but in the sense of surrendering to something you think you're supposed to want.
In 1955 Connecticut, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) are living the American dream. He commutes to the city to work for the same company that employed his father; she takes care of their suburban home and two children. And both of them openly scorn the intellectual emptiness of the other suburban lives surrounding them.
But there's an underlying tension, and their marriage seems on the verge of tearing apart until April suggests a bold plan: Frank will quit his job, they'll sell the house and move to Paris, where Frank can spend time finding the greatness within him. Their friends can't quite grasp their decision, but the Wheelers believe they finally can forge a meaningful life.
Plenty of attention has been focused on the reunion of Titanic co-stars DiCaprio and Winslet, but it's not just a case of stunt casting. Winslet's brittle ferocity energizes April's desperate need for something more, while DiCaprio conveys both Frank's intelligence and eagerness to please, which is his undoing. Both capture the broken heart of the Wheelers' marriage: a failure to understand that while April truly wants to escape the norm, Frank despite his bohemian pretensions only wants an excuse to settle into a comfortable life.
In addition to Revolutionary Road's two stars, another performer has been attracting attention. And for good reason: Michael Shannon is simply jaw-dropping. As John Givings a former mathematician who spends his passes from the mental institution visiting his mother, the Wheelers' realtor (Kathy Bates) Shannon plays the classical role of the truth-telling fool. And he's extraordinary, unleashing his fury in acidic bursts.
Where novelist Yates sometimes seemed only contemptuous of his characters' hypocrisies and self-absorption, Mendes' film version feels a little more compassionate. Yet it loses none of the story's edge in the process. Revolutionary Road peers around the corners of a time when the American dream could be both a security blanket and a crutch and one writer saw it decades ahead of his time.