We’ll start our review of Revolutionary Road with something everybody knows -– that half of all American marriages end in divorce.
Like many good statistics that everybody knows, it has one basic problem: it’s not true. Divorce rates have fallen in recent years, according to the AP, to the lowest levels since 1970, about the time they started to skyrocket. Meanwhile, the number of first marriages that succeed has always been higher. It takes seven Ward and June Cleavers to make up for one Larry King.
Once you control other factors, such as age, race, income, and education, the numbers change again. Divorce rates are lowest among wealthy, educated white women — the modern equivalent of women like April Wheeler, the chafing 1950s housewife at the center of Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road.
The 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, written by Richard Yates, arrived with the rise of the suburb and before the rise of divorce. At that time, a novel about the emptiness of the new mass suburban lifestyle would seem racy and prophetic. Give Mr. A a dull job and a mistress. Give Mrs. A a meaningless existence of child-rearing and community theater. Let them scream at each other about their vanishing youth and lost ideals. Add crushing insight, typeface, and water. Presto! You have the great American novel, circa 1960.
Now I don’t mean to belittle it. I just want to indicate that it wrestles with the social millieu of a certain time and place. In re-creating this world for the screen, Mendes mounts a handsome rendition. The British director scrubs the crassly sophomoric elements of American Beauty and effectively expands its humanity. Cinematographer Roger Deakins makes the leafy environs both sing and menace, haunted perfectly by Thomas Newman’s simple score. And Mrs. Mendes, aka Kate Winslet, delivers a magnetic performance as the story’s unhappy heroine.
Yet I mentally scrounge for any crumb of innovation, indeed anything revolutionary, that the film adds to the modern fictional suburban landscape. Revolutionary Road might succeed on its own anachronstic terms. If you consider watching two hours of the eternalized Titanic lovers going all Liz Taylor and Richard Burton entertainment. Yet I wonder if we should be making different suburban movies for a different age.
I also wonder whether these characters, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler, are the right ones to unmask the spiritual desolation of suburban culture. They would seem at least a regular fit –- urban-dwelling bohemians who move out to The White Picket Wasteland due to pregnancy. Hitting the Big 3-0 (which no one thinks of as “big” anymore), they begin to take stock of where their lives are –- Frank at a nowhere sales job in his father’s company, April in what she considers a suburban prison of unenlightened domesticity.
To save the family from its malaise, April dreams up a plan to move to Paris. Seeking a spiritual renewal for the couple, she’ll work as a secretary. That will give Frank time to “figure out what he really wants to do.” Such a daunting prospect leads Frank to realize he has no big dreams. That leads April to realize Frank was never the special young man she thought. The Paris fantasy stabilizes the marriage for a while, before the reality of American life drags them back into unhappiness.
Mendes makes one genius decision and one tragic decision. Unfortunately for him, it’s the same decision -– to place his wife at the film’s center. Genius because she lights up the screen. There isn’t a day that I wouldn’t pay to watch Winslet smoke a cigarette. That’s good, because there are moments when that’s all she’s doing here. Her performance is one of false joys and suppressed anxiety, slowly hardening into a cold nothing.
Yet I agree with what others have noted — the film is in love with her, and that fact distorts its outlook. It has trouble admitting that April’s scheme is a delusion. An understandable and sympathetic delusion, yes. A delusion with reasons. Yet during one fight, when Frank looks like a cruel bastard for telling April she needs a shrink, I couldn’t help but agree with him. All this raises an interesting question: how seriously should I take a message about the oppressive nature of marriage, Mr. Mendes, when your camera is so goopily in love with your wife?
As I watched the Wheeler marriage descend into chaos, I was reminded of a quote from the late author David Foster Wallace, a quote I admittedly can’t recite exactly from memory. In assessing an Updike protagonist from the same era, Wallace suggested maybe his misery comes not from some inherent sadness of life. Maybe he’s miserable because he’s an asshole. Perhaps the Wheelers would be more biting guides to our great wrong world if they had any social skills whatsoever. Sometimes the problem isn’t “the system” or “the culture.” Sometimes the problem is you.