Sunday, January 18, 2009

Revolutionary Road

You should read the book first - and not just because it’s an excellent novel by an excellent author who was almost completely unappreciated in his time, and also not just because the novel is almost always better than the film adaptation. The best reason to read the novel first is that having all of the expository material already in your head about Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, sharing lead billing for the first time since that boat movie) will go a long way toward helping you understand the film’s flaws.

Much of the Richard Yates novel, published in 1961 (and set in 1955, which is important to remember when the dialogue starts sounding a bit goofy), is expository writing that examines with something approaching surgical precision all of the things that are going on in the heads of the two main characters; translating that kind of material when adapting a novel to film is difficult. One of the best examples of the trick being done well is Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption; and on the other side of the coin, one of the most ham-handed examples of the trick being bungled is Todd Field’s Little Children, in which the voice-over that relays the exposition is so creepy that it detracts almost fatally from the final product.

It’s possible, and I can only speculate here, that Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes very wisely avoided using a voice-over to flesh out the characters of Frank and April Wheeler because he saw Little Children enough times to know that employing such a device imperfectly can come close to destroying your movie; and the only reason that I think it more likely than not that Mendes learned this lesson from Field’s film is that Mendes is married to Kate Winslet, who stars in both. It’s certainly possible that he chose not to use a voice-over for an entirely different reason, although I can’t imagine that anyone could watch Little Children and not almost instantly become extremely dubious about the very concept of the voice-over. But that’s just me.

That lacking in character development - which is not a wholesale lacking, but only a partial, minor, one - and the overarching feeling of melodrama for the sake of melodrama in the first two acts are the only flaws in an otherwise excellent film. Unfortunately, they’re sort of major flaws - and yet, they’re not enough to sink the film, although I have read the novel almost twice now, and am very fond of it. I expect that that makes me biased, willing to overlook certain things because I have read the novel and I know what’s missing. (In the case of character development, the scene late in the film that develops between April Wheeler and Shep Campbell is particularly lacking - it’s obvious what’s going on, but what it really means to the characters to whom it is happening is lost in the film.)

(One other thing that is missing from the film, though again it’s a minor quibble, is the flavor of the deft, descriptive prose employed by Yates. His ability to turn a phrase, illuminate the humor in the mundane, and expose humankind’s essential vulnerable nakedness - or at least that of post-war suburban Americans - is second to none. Go read the damn book!)

That being said, I think Mendes and company have done a fine job of bringing to the screen the best novel of Richard Yates’ sadly underappreciated career. The story is of Frank and April Wheeler, a married couple residing in suburban Connecticut in the mid-1950s and hating the fact that this is the life to which they have resigned themselves. They believe that they were always destined for something more than the standard suburban middle class life. Mendes uses a number of establishing shots early in the film to illustrate the sameness of post-war suburban America: the parade of men - all clad in grey or grey-ish suits and hats and carrying briefcases - getting on and off the train that shuttles them from home to work and back again, and the line of trash cans set at the curb, each can the same as the rest, placed at the curb in the same way, stretching down the street and out of the line of sight.

The images are a bit heavy-handed, but I think that might be the point; if the Wheelers are so special and so enlightened about how much there is in the world to go out and get, how is it that they fail to see the extent to which they themselves are perpetuating the very manner of living that they profess to disdain? Or is it that they understand this about themselves and yet refuse to act upon that knowledge? Subtle is not a word I would use to describe the work of Richard Yates, especially in this story; the images are supposed to hit you heavily across the forehead, probably with some sort of comic book-style sound effect - THWOCK!

See, Frank and April yell at each other quite a lot, too often succumbing to a violent rage that betrays both the idea that they are a happily married couple and the idea that either of them is really happy about anything at all. Makes you feel all warm and cozy inside, doesn’t it? Richard Yates wasn’t really happy about very much, either, and he channels that unhappiness into his writing - creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; he writes very well, but what he writes about is so disheartening that it’s not hard to believe, having read even just a small amount of his work, that such work would not easily find a wide readership. I don’t have a good explanation for why some authors achieve legendary status writing largely misanthropic fiction (Philip Roth and, especially, Marcel Proust leap to mind) and others, like Yates, don’t.

The story follows Frank and April through the summer of 1955, as the banality of the life they have made for themselves wears each of them down to the point of breaking. Frank works at the same company his father worked at, April keeps house, and they both smoke and drink a lot when they get together with their neighbors (Shep and Milly Campbell, who live the same kind of life the Wheelers live, except that they don’t feel trapped by it, and they don’t understand why the Wheelers do feel trapped by it) or with their realtor and her husband and their son John, who has mental health issues - and absolutely steals both of his scenes by cruelly subverting traditional notions of mental health. He cuts through the pretentious bullshit with more of that surgical precision, and an insight that verges on the uncanny.

What is perhaps most compelling about the film is watching how Frank and April conform to societal gender roles even as they pretend to be superior to such behavior while simultaneously working within those roles to try to dream up a way that they can be happy. Frank hates his job working in the home office of a company that sells those newfangled computers to American businessmen, but then accidentally creates a product brochure that wows the higher-ups and gets him and his work noticed and opens the door to a promotion and more money; and April pines at home for the days when they were young and could go anywhere they wanted and do anything they wanted, before they were shackled by a mortgage and children. Frank convinces himself that this new angle at work might be the thing that can cure their ills, and April convinces herself that they can still move to Paris, where she can get a job and Frank can spend some well-deserved time finding himself and figuring out what he really wants to do with his life.

Both DiCaprio and Winslet do a tremendous job of trying to contain the rage and pain inside their characters, and they do an even better job when Frank and April are unable to stop that rage and pain from exploding out of them. DiCaprio is particularly good at revving himself up and foaming at the mouth and going red in the face, taking Frank right to the edge of losing control without ever quite going all the way over. Winslet is somewhat more controlled, but in exerting that control she shows that April internalizes more than Frank does (another nod to the traditional conception of gender roles). That Winslet can do this so well should come as no surprise. That DiCaprio does such fine work should come as a surprise, and it does. I liked him a lot in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, but have been disappointed with everything I’ve seen him in since (other than films directed by Martin Scorsese). know what just occurred to me? Kathy Bates, who plays realtor Helen Givings here, was in that damn boat movie, too.

The film feels very anesthetized in the early going, and doesn’t build up a head of steam toward its climax so much as it sort of ambles along until things become too much for anyone to handle anymore; and yet even when things start to unravel and the horrific conclusion reveals its inevitability, the tempo grinds nearly to a halt in places, and a number of scenes toward the end of the film run a touch too long. At about an hour and forty-five minutes, the film only barely starts to feel long during some of these later, slower scenes. A bit of additional character development early in the film would probably have been a better use of time than the lingering shots near the end.

And by now you’re thinking that I have surely gone on long enough, and that there can’t be much more to say; alas, there is more to say. Reading over these comments on the film, I think that you might come away with the impression that I didn’t like the movie. This is not the case; in fact, I liked it a lot, and the more I’ve thought about it in the three days since I’ve seen it, the more I’ve come to realize just how much I liked it. Part of this stems from having enjoyed the novel so much; and part of it comes from the fact that so much of the dialogue is taken word for word from the novel - it’s a very faithful adaptation (almost to the point that a few bits of stage direction scribbled in the margins could render a copy of the novel into a workable shooting script). I hope that it plays as well for those who have not read the novel as it did for me, though I suspect that probably will not be the case (and if it’s not the case, maybe you’ll like the art direction and set decoration, and the score - all of which are pretty good, too).

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