When I first read Revolutionary Road, I thought it might be too multilayered to make a good movie. But I held out hope that Richard Yates's 1961 novel of suburban discontent could really triumph visually, with its lush '50s setting, dark humor, the awkward embarrassment of characters realizing life hasn't turned out the way they planned, and the quiet resentment that breeds.
When I heard Sam Mendes was directing with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio starring, I really yearned for this movie to be great — which probably explains why I was somewhat disappointed by an otherwise thoughtful film. To read my bittersweet reaction,
Revolutionary Road is incredibly artful, capturing the romance of the city, the seduction of the country, and the stifling effect either place can have on unfulfilled lives. DiCaprio and Winslet deliver aching performances as Frank and April Wheeler, two wannabe bohemians who feel obliged to move to the suburbs when their first kid arrives. As with the book, it's difficult to sympathize with the protagonists even as we identify with them; we resent them for how much they resent each other.
The novel chronicles the minute details of the Wheelers' lives from the moment they meet, and blessedly, Mendes makes some tough choices in order to keep his movie at two hours. It begins when the Wheelers are already settled with two kids, showing snippets of their younger selves in flashbacks. Some of the moments where Mendes chooses to linger — such as in the fastidiously drawn-out final scene — are brilliant. But other choices left me wanting more context. Even my boyfriend, who has not read the book, agreed: The movie is missing something to help us understand why the characters act the way they do.
It's easy to imagine how the book was totally unsettling when it was released, and the movie is not without haunting and hard-to-swallow realism. But suburban funk is such a common theme nowadays that we need to know the characters beyond broad strokes. For instance, Frank gets a job where his dad worked primarily because he appreciates the irony. This isn't explained in the movie, but for me, knowing how the Wheelers got themselves into this situation makes the story even more tragic. The heart-wrenching scenes of the couple arguing would be far more poignant if we knew them better. Thankfully, DiCaprio and Winslet can communicate on their faces what the script can't always say.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Vantage