This is one of those Oscar time movies that comes out and you’ll think about seeing because, well, you like movies and it is supposed to be good. It totally fits into all that hoopla of end-of-the-year releases and hey, more often than not, many of those films are reasonably good. They feature the most talented directors and actors. Their premises are often a bit more interesting than the rest of the year and it’s a nice change of pace. For this one specifically, chances are you came around on Leo after The Departed or The Aviator. You like Sam Mendes and know he makes beautiful movies. We can all agree Kate Winslet is awesome. So you might decide to take up REVOLUTIONARY ROAD.
Why? There’s a litany of reasons not to see this movie and I’m going to be a little ambitious and try to illustrate as many as I can. I feel like I have to spread the word about this, because I’m already seeing so many passive takes on the film (one early AICN review described this film as “a ride” I don’t think I could come up with a worse description). The goal is really to breakdown this movie to its essence. When there, you will hopefully see this film is nothing but an utter piece of steaming dog shit.
No, it has nothing to do with Mendes, Winslet, or Dicaprio. For all intents and purposes, they’re all fine and are certainly trying their damndest. I think all the problems with RR can be traced back to what is on the page. The script screams in pain (and by extension maybe the novel. I never read it, and every fault described could entirely be in that book, but I can only blame the screenwriter… which is what I will do).
I’ll spare you any plot synopsis. The first thing to know about REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (RR) is that it’s really just a riff on two other things. First, it’s “Madmen: the Movie!” Only everything that makes Madmen wonderful is utterly missing from this film. It’s about all the same subjects, has the same kind of characters, and is situated in the exact same location, but exhibits absolutely none of the tact, ambiguity, or subtlety of that series; Starting exactly with the issue of subtext. What supposedly makes RR so “interesting” is that it’s about the underbelly and dark secrets of suburbia and marriage (apparently the book might have created the genre), which would truly be a stark wake-up-call to the brainless, subdued nature of the 50s and early 60s conformity. How does RR establish this theme? It tells us so… Really… the characters sit there and lecture each other for the entire running time about how stupid suburban living is and just how much they hate living in the suburbs with those people. They tell us that they hate the fact that they are acting like other people too. They hate that they’re having problems in their marriage and tell each other. The characters tell you this constantly and discuss it in the same broad, generic concepts as I do here… It’s agonizing. So screenwriting rule #1 “show don’t tell” is broken so violently and garishly that it’s fucking impossible for you to absorb ANY of the possible organic acting or direction that may be on display.
Never is the “tell don’t show” dynamic more on display than with shoehorned son-of-their-landlord character. See he’s a crazy person who’s had to go to insane asylum for various social problems. He’s had electro-shock therapy and for socialization’s sake, he attends a few dinners at Kate and Leo’s house. Yet within mere moments, he’s completely perceptive to everything happening in that house and is more than willing to bring every character’s pain and neurosis right to the surface. He’s the classic Jester figure of Shakespearean literature: The fool on the hill who can get away with saying anything, especially the truth. The actor who plays him (I can’t remember from anything else) is really quite good in the role too. Mendes plays the whole ordeal for laughs and it is successful on that level, but in the larger scheme of things it is such a screeching, lobotomizing narrative device that simply hammers every big damn thematic over your head as if it hasn’t been hammered enough. In some ways it’s the deathblow of the picture. I liken it to a putting a roofie in your delicious ice cream sundae. The scene plays, it’s funny. But within the context of the entire film, the intent and lasting effect of the scene is shockingly negative. The very inclusion of which is completely false to any kind of lofty or realistic aspirations in the film. It’s almost as if at times, Mendes is trying to stretch it and harkens back to the black comedy of American Beauty. But it’s impossible. We’re in “tell don’t show” land and there’s no having it both ways. It’s a damn mess.
Like I touched on before, what makes Madmen so wonderful is that all of these very real problems are bubbling under the surface. That was what so interesting about the setting and the time, really. We weren’t that much different from now, but social etiquette, propriety, and the mere cadence of the times kept things from coming to the forefront. RR likes to point this out to us by literally saying it when characters yell at each other (and by extension, us) like they’re (we’re) idiots. Madmen, and by extension, art, doesn’t really do that. That’s what essays do. It’s all the more obvious in that unlike Madmen, RR only uses its 50s/60s setting when advantageous. You’ll see a well timed “swell” to get a laugh, and yet the whole world of the characters is a fantasy reality where people can become props for the theoretical, or utilize the 70’s “me generation” mediation with a strictly 90s outward-ness. The modernization of the film’s tone is was unquestionably jarring.
Interrupting logical sequence of criticism, I have a bit of a related tangent. In most pop-psychology terms the reason we even had the 1950s suburban mentality in the first place is that ordinary men who went off to WW2 and Korea returned home and simply wanted the basic fruits of life: a home, a family, a future. It was the thrill of a dignified, basic life as an alternative to the horrors of war. Heck, let’s just call it an inherent understanding of simple things in life. Yet to Frank Wheeler (Leo’s character, if I haven’t mentioned before, not like it matters) displays none of that. I was shocked when we learned he was a veteran. More so, being at war and rushing the front line was apparently the only exhilarating moment of his life; the one where he “really lived.” Double heck, apparently wartime Paris is the only place he wants to ever go again. That may not seem an unusual sentiment today in the age of “generation kill” and modern marine culture, but it’s pretty much a stark contrast to every single thing I’ve heard from the ordinary WW2 and Korea veterans I’ve known personally, or seen/read in other depictions. Normally, we’re subject to the notions of integrity and brotherhood among people just trying making it out alive and serve their country. For Frank… it was a different experience.
Apparently the novel’s author Robert Yates was a Veteran of WW2. Maybe in the book he had a lot more bits of insight into the war than the brief moment in the film. Maybe Yates was someone who was simply wired differently, and had a completely different reaction to both warfare and the ensuing peace in the suburban sprawl. And that would be great… if that’s the real subject of exploration. But instead of Frank being a fish out of water, he acts as if his truth is the universal truth; everyone else is damn sucker. The institutions of suburbia and marriage seem to be the blame for crushing the individual spirit. It should be said, I’ve never been to war. Who the hell am I to say what a soldier should of felt? Or what he should be writing about? It’s actually a pretty shitty thing to do… but I can only say what felt disingenuous to me… and it did.
Maybe it just gets back to my problem with Frank and April (Winslet’s character’s name, not that it matters) not being real people and just vehicles for broad sentiment; mouthpieces of author. Sure, their fights are often dead on. Then again how hard is it to have an ear for the same fights every couple has? Does that make them genuine? It feels like a trap to me. It’s the same exact thing that bothered me about Tell Me You Love Me. Is there really something poignant about the minutiae of basic relationship dynamics? To me, they’re simply a given. What’s often far more interesting are the details of the things that keep us together (in various different forms) and often that’s how we progress.
RR seems to have so many other specific writing problems too. One that sticks out is this weird as hell part where Frank seems to actually care about taking a promotion as a testament to his father, when we already to through lengths to establish that he doesn’t give a shit about his dad. It almost reeks of (gulp) plot convenience… in a personal drama. Awesome! (That’s not even mentioning the seeming absurdity of how the promotion even comes to be). Frank and April’s children aren’t even relevant for most of the film and when there, the film has much more validity and dynamic ideas. Most of the time, it feels like they’re just shuffled out of the way for convenience. Maybe the most egregious thing to my interest in the characters is how the opening of the film begins with their meeting and immediately flashes forward to their later marriage. We find ourselves witnessing a massive fight after her failed local theater performance and it’s vicious… then roll title! I fully expected us to go back in time and witness their fall from grace at this point… but nope, we continue in the present. The real problem is that the viciousness of that first fight is not too far off from the severity of the fights at the end of the film. In other words, they start and end the movie in the same goddamn place. FACEPALM. Nothing feels like more of a waste of time in a personal drama than doing that. It’s the only fucking reason we’re there. And if there’s an art aesthetic or modernist comment in doing that, I sure as hell couldn’t find it in RR.
Then there’s the matter of the other film that RR riffs on (yes we’re finally at #2): Little Children. Maybe it’s the Winslet connection, but everything that was detailed and interesting about the underbelly of suburbia in that magnificent film is broad and boring in RR. That’s mostly because it’s all about the specifics of the story in Little Children, and RR is so freakin’ eager to attach the specifics of their story to the generalness of everybody’s situation, it misses its own opportunity to be a goddamn example. The whole affair feels like the projection of a screenwriter/author who feels like they failed in life and sets fire to the institutions that trapped them in their intellectual purgatory. Sometimes it even feels like someone is trying to justify a lifestyle choice apart to their parents, or apart from the norm and they eviscerate the things they identify as obstacles. It’s almost strange really.
Maybe I’m being such a prick about this because the matter of happiness in suburbia is never really something I found all that troubling. More often then not, it’s basic displacement for whatever is bothering them, and overt intellectuals often have trouble walking out of their own mind. RR walks this fine little line by almost keying into that and establishing that Frank and April are actually idiots for not realizing it has nothing to do with where they live and how they work, but it never quite gets there. It’s just too happy digging into suburban dynamics. It’s insanely frustrating to me (especially because that was American Beauty’s biggest success). When it finally gets to the end [spoiler] and we get a little line about Frank in the wake of tragedy spending every moment with his kids, our final revelation is nothing more than a mere aside; fuck, the entire point of two hour wank-a-thon is muddled when we’re treated to a nice little misogynistic final note.
After I saw RR and wrote most of this I simply had to read up a bit on Richard Yates. I mentioned he was a veteran. He also basically worked in the exact same job as Frank did before he wrote the novel and went onto better things. His quotes about his creative work often exhibit the same pontificating persona of Frank and April. He says he sees them as “revolutionary” figures for wanting out of the suburban trap. His words are a scathing indictment of a culture. A culture in which, he sometimes feels like the victim, rather than the perpetrator (a key difference from Weiner’s Madmen). He was twice divorced and seems to be blaming the institutions (suburbia, marriage) instead of his own personal failures (such an unfair statement of me to make). His free thinking attitude and ability seem to show nothing of overcoming/transcending it, but only raging against it. But once again, I have not read the book so I speak a dreadful combination of passion and being out of turn. I can’t help it, I’m fascinated by all these complexes.
Yates wrote the book in 1962 apparently, and this would mean his thoughtful world of Frank and April was well ahead of its time. That is worth noting and explains his influence on future authors (A admirable journalist is quick to point this out, and alludes to a lot more Madmen-esque qualities in Yates writing, which would be a contrast from what I saw in the film). And yes, maybe I’m totally wrong in my statements of the film’s sincerity, but if Yates is merely a progenitor of Updike, consider me pissed. I can’t stand Updike. I find him misogynistic and invariably lame (but most of that can be covered in David Foster Wallace’s fantastic essay of destruction on Updike. Try and find it! I can’t online). Updike, like RR, so often fails to see the fact that the solutions to these “problems” in life are often right there in front of you if you could get over yourself and your penis (specific to Updike. That dude likes writing about his dick). But they can’t get over it. This also might help explain my love of Madmen. The aforementioned journalist mentions Wiener’s lack of appropriation to Yates and Updike for their influence, but that’s because I think Madmen works as a giant “fuck you,” or at very least a revision, to the mentalities of Updike and Yates.
Okay. I’m done now. A lot of this feels like nitpicking over semantics. I know and I apologize. I’m not normally like this. I think I like 95% of the movies I see I’m excited about and tend to like in some way. Face it, there’s usually nothing good that can come from not liking a movie because what it has to say. Double face it, certainly nothing can be gained from taking a shot at REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and the varying intellects and talents of the people involved. They’re very smart and very good at what they do. They have big aspirations. It’s not like I’m eviscerating Bratz or Little Man and there’s an entertaining reason for all this. I just felt like this script was a special kind of awful that doesn’t get much attention.
Who knows? The script might even get an academy award nomination.
Worse for me to admit, in the end it is an okay film to like. There are scenes of funniness. There’s some neat little things at play in the acting. I can’t imagine anyone could have done better with this awful script. And this is all just some guy’s opinion.
But I really don’t think there has ever been a film that has driven me as nuts as this one.