Revolutionary Road opens with two scenes so beautifully judged—so perfect a précis of a marriage in crisis—that they just about render the rest of the film redundant. In the first, total strangers April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) engage in significant eye contact and then teasing banter at a party, their exchanges thrumming with possibility. With no warning of any kind, the movie then jumps ahead several years, as Frank watches the curtain descend on April in a disastrous community-theater production of The Petrified Forest. Backstage, having hurriedly wiped tears away, she shoots him a concerned, expectant glance, clearly looking for a small beacon of hope. “Well, I guess it wasn’t a triumph or anything, was it?” says Frank, accompanied by a pathetic nervous chuckle. The immediate juxtaposition of those two moments, from giddy and curious to resigned and oblivious, just rips your heart out.
Adapted from a much-loved 1962 novel by Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road just keeps on ripping and ripping. Frank and April haven’t merely grown apart from each other. More crucially, both have drifted far from the lives they’d once envisioned for themselves—lives that were meant to be chockablock with creativity and mystery and spontaneity, not boring old domesticity. Frank toils unhappily at the same generic firm where his late father once worked, reciting sales figures into a Dictaphone (it’s 1955) and engaging in a desultory affair with a mousy secretary. Homemaker clearly isn’t April’s preferred job description, either. Is there no escape from this suburban prison? April thinks there is, and proposes to Frank that they move to Paris, where she’ll find some high-paying civil-service gig, and he’ll find—well, himself. He agrees, and for a brief, blissful few weeks both are re-energized by their forthcoming liberation. As you might expect, however, human nature proves to be the cruelest of wardens.
Apart from the fact that he happens to be Winslet’s husband, director Sam Mendes seems an odd choice for this resolutely realistic material, despite having scored multiple Oscars for the similar-but-contemporary American Beauty. Theatrical to the core, Mendes excels at grand artifice, not mundane detail; his impulse here is to heighten every visual cliché of the Eisenhower era—losing Frank in a mammoth sea of identical suits and hats in Grand Central Station, shooting characters through lawn sprinklers, etc. He also encourages slightly overemphatic performances from his two leads—I’d be down with Winslet’s Golden Globe win had she not chosen to telegraph the film’s tragic conclusion by abruptly turning into a Stepford wife. Most of all, there’s a slight sense of mustiness about the whole scenario, even though Yates clearly got there first. It’s a straight-up rendition of what Mad Men has now spent two seasons subverting.
That said, if you don’t object in principle to one more tour of suburban hell, Revolutionary Road does offer a genuinely heartfelt portrait of two people trapped by their own moderate success. It also provides the most high-profile showcase yet for the insanely gifted Michael Shannon (Bug, World Trade Center), who plays John Givings, the mentally unstable son of Frank and April’s friend and former realtor (Kathy Bates). Shannon has only two scenes, and functions as a somewhat hackneyed dramatic device—the lunatic who speaks unspeakable truths—but his live-wire energy reliably gooses any movie in which he appears, and this one is no exception. He also gets to deliver what must be Yates’ signature line about conventional society: “Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.” Mendes’ film adaptation lacks real guts—but it is on to the emptiness, at least, and that’s something.