As critic Philip Lopate once noted, "Nothing's more tedious than blaming a picture because it fails to live up to its book." True, but for people watching a movie based on a book they've read, that weird, instinctive fact checking between the two texts is nearly unavoidable.
For readers familiar with Richard Yates' sublimely unsettling 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes' adaptation will probably inspire an involuntary sense of artistic attenuation.
Set in the 1950s, Yates' novel chronicles the hopes and dreams of Frank and April Wheeler, a young, formerly bohemian couple who are feeling trapped in the Connecticut suburbs. Frank is a philandering mid-level corporate drone, and April daydreams about better things during pauses in her domestic routine. April's suggestion that she, Frank, and the kids drop everything and move to Paris to find themselves briefly energizes the family. But the path of freedom is beset on all sides by obstacles — a promotion, a pregnancy, perhaps a simple failure of nerve — and any hope for escape soon dwindles.
Mendes' film offers a sizable dose of Yates' bitter medicine, but it's a less insightful, less uncomfortably humorous affair altogether. Nowhere is the film's dour, bitter sense of humor more obvious than in the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Wheelers. Expect no "I'm king of the world!" epiphanies in this reunion. Five minutes into the movie, this formerly romantic couple is tearing at each other like precocious, angry children. Frank's and April's regular explosions of over-articulate fury reveal little about marital troubles or spiritual vacuity. These unrelenting hissy fits, propelled by over-bookish language, turn Revolutionary Road into another Noah Baumbach-style pseudo-indie pity party.
It's not a total loss, though. Revolutionary Road is astute in its emphasis on middle-class role-playing. How to sit on a couch, how to hold a cigarette, how to convey contempt for one's neighbors without the neighbors' suspecting anything, how to respond to bald effrontery — all these behaviors assume tremendous importance. This fits DiCaprio's and Winslet's talents for expressing the physical effects of sudden, overwhelming emotional storms. Winslet can convey bumbling, pathetic criminal panic in her face in an instant, while DiCaprio regresses to infantile rage amidst bitter tears and teeth-gnashing. Their consuming anger stems from the fact that they may be in suburban hell because they aren't interesting enough to belong anywhere else.
Unfortunately, the Golden-Globed Winslet wallows too often in this kind of suburban despair — how many of her films show her pressed against a wall or cabinet in a bout of clammy, spontaneous sex? She's better than that — isn't she?
Opening Friday, January 16th
Studio on the Square