Watching a Sam Mendes film is like sitting in a room while all the air is being sucked out. His latest bout of Oscar-bait, Revolutionary Road, is no different. It’s one of those somber melodramas that only venture outside during awards season. In fact, it’s essentially a 1950s variation on Mendes’ American Beauty (1999)—and it’s every inch as artificial and condescending as that film. Whether it will be as overrated remains to be seen. Revolutionary Road has the advantage of coming with a literary pedigree in that it’s based on a highly regarded novel by Richard Yates. And it has the box-office dazzle of reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet for the first time since Titanic (1997). Plus, it garnered Winslet a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama. So far so good, but it’s also been met with less than overwhelming praise in most other departments—and there’s more.
The question arises as to whether it would have been possible for Revolutionary Road to have arrived at a worse time. We live in an age of downsizing, layoffs, collapsing businesses, mortgage foreclosures and everything else you can think of. Given that reality, is there actually a market for a movie about two self-centered, pretty, overprivileged, upwardly mobile characters living in a big picture-book house fighting and kvetching for almost two solid hours about how miserable their life in suburbia is? The movie has an uphill battle convincing us that there’s one single reason to give a damn about Frank (DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Winslet), their disintegrating marriage and their whining about the life they think they were cheated out of. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a battle the film loses within its first half hour.
Suburbia bashing is an old, old hobby for the movies. Hell, the movies that were being made in the era Revolutionary Road is set took pokes at it. For that matter, Joseph L. Mankiewicz took a pretty solid swipe at it back in 1949 with A Letter to Three Wives (only Mankiewicz was smart enough to swing at wealth and romanticized poverty at the same time). It’s a game city folks like to play to make themselves feel superior without really knowing that much about the topic.
In the same vein, there’s the anti-conformity aspect at work—and who doesn’t respond to that? The question is whether or not Mendes’ film has anything new to add. Considering that his virtually choreographed brigades of gray-flannel-suited businessmen differs not one bit from those in David Swift’s Good Neighbor Sam (1964), I’d say no. The biggest difference is Mendes’ hero doesn’t envision his fellow working men as sheep—the way Jack Lemmon does in Sam. It might have helped if he had, but then we might have gotten the idea that Mendes has a sense of humor and that would never do. This is drama—and he’s not going to let you forget it.
As a result, Mendes gives us an entire movie devoted to two people we’re never given the slightest reason to like as they square off like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—except, unlike George and Martha, they never say anything witty. In between arguments, they haphazardly plot to extricate themselves from suburbia to go live a “real life” in Paris doing … I was never sure what, except that it would be magically artistic. (My own take is that if you couldn’t do that in Connecticut, you’re not likely to do it in Paris either. To think Paris will help is kind of like sitting on Hemmingway’s barstool in Key West and thinking you’ll be able to write.) The only one who offers something like a valid perception on any of this is John Givings (Michael Shannon), the son of their overly chummy realtor (Kathy Bates). He’s on a furlough from a booby hatch for apparently going after mom with a coffee table—probably one groaning under the weight of picture books that look a lot like this movie.
Along the road to the movie’s decorously grim climax, we’re treated to some grubby affairs (decorously presented), unwanted pregnancies, and various outcroppings of duplicity and angst. It’s all handled with the utmost Mendesian tastefulness and consummate professionalism—complete with beautifully lit images and bathed in an über-restrained score (mostly consisting of a single theme) from Thomas Newman. (That Newman also scored American Beauty, In the Bedroom and Little Children made him the perfect choice here.) It’s all in the service of a great profundity that I never detected. You may feel differently—quite a few people have—but, for me, the end result is a very large, “Who needs it?” Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.