What is it about the 1950s that brings out the worst in cultural historians? The received wisdom is that this era that gave us Mailer and Ginsberg and Kerouac and Brando and Dean was, in fact, a bastion of strait-laced – i.e., straitjacketed – conformity. People, suburbanites especially, lived lives of quiet desperation in their look-alike, ticky-tacky dwellings. Wives were obsessed with spotless kitchens. Commuter trains served up faceless men in gray flannel suits to the gaping maw of Manhattan and then back again, to the two-car garage and the 2.5 children.
The latest movie to plug into this cautionary myth is "Revolutionary Road," set in the mid-'50s and based, extremely faithfully, on the celebrated 1961 novel by Richard Yates. The director is Sam Mendes, who plumbed these shallows once before in "American Beauty," which, though contemporary, felt '50-ish. The new film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who previously appeared together in "Titanic." This is another kind of disaster movie, on dry land.
Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) and his wife, April (Winslet), live in a Connecticut suburb that is suffocatingly prim. He works at a dull job in Manhattan at a business-machines corporation; she is a frustrated actress who suddenly has the bright idea to drop everything and make a fresh start in Paris. She will support the family while he tries to find himself.
The problem is, Frank already pretty much knows who he is. A bland soul lurks beneath that blandly handsome exterior. Although he humors April, it's clear they have about as much chance of moving to Paris as Chekhov's Three Sisters had of relocating to Moscow. The die is cast when April tells Frank that Paris is their one chance and, with a jokester's irony, he replies: "We're running from the hopeless emptiness of the life here." He's too enamored by hopelessness to leave.
Mendes and his screenwriter Justin Haythe are overly enamored of ennui. They cast such a pall over the proceedings that, at times, we seem to be watching a species of vampire movie – which, in a sense, is what all these soulless suburbia films are. (See also, or better yet, don't see, "The Ice Storm" and "Little Children.") The filmmakers haven't figured out that despair is more wrenching when the people doing the despairing have something vital to lose. The Wheelers don't even appear to care for their children, to whom Mendes likewise gives short shrift, or have much more on their minds than mood swings and the cocktail hour. Although in the course of the film April descends into a kind of madness, we are never brought into her pain. We stand apart from the misery because Mendes is anatomizing these people instead of getting inside their skins.
Yates, in his novel, penetrated the hearts of his protagonists with a mercilessness that at times was borderline sadistic. In a way, he's as much to blame as anybody for what went wrong with the movie. He's the one, after all, who set up these archetypes. The fact that he set them up so skillfully doesn't absolve him. (What would Yates, or Mendes, for that matter, make of TV's "Mad Men," where the suburban '50s vampires at least have some vitality?)
Only once in "Revolutionary Road" does the film break through its studied air of high-toned moping. As John Givings, the mentally unstable son of a local real estate agent (Kathy Bates), Michael Shannon has only a few scenes but he cuts through them like a straight razor. John is a deranged truth-teller who instantly zones in on the Wheelers' dire predicament. In this cookie-cutter community, his craziness represents a higher form of sanity. This may be a mythologizing of insanity but, while you're watching John, you're grateful he's around to say what everybody else isn't.
DiCaprio and Winslet comport themselves as best they can under the circumstances, which means they don't entirely blend into the blandness. Some of their spats seem like warm-ups for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" which came a decade later. It doesn't say much for a movie when you want to see its protagonists slap each other around just to keep the circulation going.
"Revolutionary Road" is a sad experience, but the sadness has no emotional heft because its people have none. This movie hasn't earned its funk. (Rated R for language, some sexual content/nudity.)