Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: Revolutionary Road

A Paramount Vantage release 2008

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Justin Haythe
Based on the novel by Richard Yates

A young couple living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s struggle to come to terms with their personal problems while trying to raise their two children.

This talky drama often feels more like a play than a film, but considering the talent of all involved that's not necessarily a bad thing. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Kathy Bates reunite for the first time in ten years since 1998's Titanic in this stirring drama, deftly handled by Winselt's husband and Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition).

The script is a little overt at times -- there's a lot of yelling about 'dissatisfaction' and 'this empty/hopeless/bleak life' -- but the performers have such natural chemistry and talent that they manage to elevate some of the more leaden dialogue into something more honest and heart-wrenching. Particularly impressive is veteran stage actor and Bug star Michael Shannon, who's electric, albeit brief turn as the so considered 'insane' son of Kathy Bates literally tears the screen apart. This is some of the finest acting you'll see all year, and it's a shame Shannon's screen time is so brief, or he'd be a shoo-in Oscar contender.

What struck me most about this film was the amount of humor it managed to wring out of such bleak, serious material. I'm not talking inappropriate laughs, either -- there were some genuinely humorous moments in this film. A lot of this can be attributed to the talented performers, who create real people with real struggles, rather than stage performances or succumb to their star qualities.

The film is, ultimately, a condemnation of American conformity in the 1950's. Another reason for some of the weightiness of the dialogue is that the film begins with a couple already past their breaking point. April's acting aspirations are revealed and cut down immediately in the opening scenes -- from here on out we are meant to understand her sacrifice to Frank and their suburban lifestyle. Frank, on the other hand, has no real aspirations of his own, and so his inability to look beyond the life they've already established is a natural track. Doing the minimum to get by at work without developing any alternative self, Frank finds himself earning a promotion -- a damning hypocrisy of the American workplace -- in contrast with April's taking concrete steps to accomplish their move to Paris. When that plan falls through, April becomes distraught, disillusioned, and broken -- the American dream is dead.

Winslet won a Golden Globe for her performance and is the front runner tapped for this year's Oscar -- much deserved. The film is carried by the actor's performances and hers is an especially difficult role. It's a crying shame to me that Mr. Shannon isn't receiving the same sort of accolades, but the mere fact that he can hold his weight with such heavy hitters shows a lot of promise for the future.

While not the best film of the year, or even the best condemnation of American conformity put to celluloid, Revolutionary Road is a good film, one worth seeking out if only for the performances. It also really makes me want to read the book by Richard Yates -- anything that makes me want to read I figure is a good thing.

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