November 15, 2008

Revolutionary Road (11/15/08)

Lettergrade: D+

During an early scene in Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio takes a morning train from the Connecticut suburb he shares with screen-wife Kate Winslet into New York City for work. The sequence is staged wordlessly, with bittersweet Thomas Newman music soaring over picturesque images of seas of 1960's era business men, all carrying brief-cases and wearing similar Joe Friday hats as they trudge toward their jobs.

Director Sam Mendes did a scene similar to this in his second movie, 2002's Road To Perdition, where Tom Hanks deposits his son in a Chicago train station while he goes to talk with a prominent mob-boss. Like that scene, the one in Revolutionary Road feels utterly inauthentic... like we're looking at a stylized post-card version of a time period, the likes of which Norman Rockwell might have painted for The Saturday Evening Post. That's fine for a certain kind of movie, but Revolutionary Road seems to depend on a sense of realism and credibility in order to work. Did the past ever look like that? It's possible, I guess, but the glossiness somehow makes it all seem like an impressionistic caricature as opposed to something that ever really existed.

I think that's my key issue with how Mendes makes his movies, and how he made this one in particular. I've got a number of problems, actually; It feels very theatrical, as if adapted from a stage play (although it isn't)... It has an unnecessarily lengthy running time that includes a number of subplots and side-stories that don't seem to amount to much... And the anti-materialistic, anti-establishment tone, similar in ways to that of Fight Club as well as Mendes's first film, American Beauty -- the idea being that the stuff you acquire somewhat holds you captive, and you'd be better off without it -- is starting to feel awfully clichéd and hollow to me by now. All that aside, though, it is the unnatural way in which people interact and that overly-designed fakeness which really trumps it all for me. It's one of those movies where if there were not top-notch actors like Leo and Kate in front of the camera and talent like ace cinematographer Roger Deakins behind it, I'm not sure there'd be a lot worth talking about. Which is to say that it's a shame for all these skilled people to get together to make something that cannot hold up under the weight of its own design and which doesn't really connect.

Closely adapted from a Richard Yates novel, the picture is a domestic drama about a 30ish couple who are in a serious rut. There's plenty of money, but he hates his job, and she feels restrained by raising the kids and living out in the 'burbs, which seems to have had the side-effect of killing her ambitions toward being a full-time actress (as indicated briefly in one early scene, and never referred to again). One day, Winslet gets the idea that they can sell all their things and go to another country, where they could enjoy life and live off their savings while figuring out whatever it is they really want to do with themselves. The idea energizes the couple for a time, but soon reality comes crashing in and they conclude that such a move isn't really doable.

Based only on his films, it seems that Mendes has a fairly a condescending view of the lives of most common folk - that is to say, people who did not choose to be painters or musicians or theater directors (Mendes' occupation when he's not making Oscar bait). Every day existence is a dull and painful thing in his movies. People who live in the suburbs, be it Lester and Carolyn Burnham of American Beauty or Frank and April Wheeler of Revolutionary Road, are embittered, feel trapped, and hide all sorts of dark secrets. At one point, Kate asks Leo how long they have to live lives they don't like before realizing that opportunity has passed them by and they're "second rate."

American Beauty - the quality of which I increasingly credit to screenwriter Alan Ball, who would go on to create HBO's Six Feet Under - poised itself as an exposé of the dark and twisted shit that's going on in the suburbs that you don't even know about. But the older I get, I understand that while it's powerful filmmaking, the sentiment and Medes's point of view feels less and less true. Misfortunate, apathy, and the feeling that perhaps you could have made more of yourself affect pretty much everyone at one time or another, I'd imagine, but it seems rare that people use it as an excuse to violently self-destruct, as Mendes' characters regularly have over several movies now.

A good number of people I've met seem to find ways to appreciate what they have rather than dwelling on the things they don't, and a few have even come to the wise conclusion that happiness is largely a do-it-yourself job (and doesn't have much to do with your income or where you're living). Frank and April hate their existence, but they are also wealthy to the point where the option of moving to France and living off their savings is a feasible possibility. When that prospect goes away for multiple reasons, things start to get ugly, War Of The Roses style. Really? Just those two choices, huh? Move away or have a complete melt-down at home?

We attended a guild screening of the picture at the Paramount lot on Saturday, after which Mendes and some of the actors and key creative personnel spoke. I only bring this up because the question and answer session didn't really enlighten me about the making of the film as much as it confirmed something I'd been suspecting for years anyway: That Sam Mendes is sort of a douche-bag.

No comments:

Post a Comment