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Mendes' Tale of Suburban Angst Proves a Bitter Pill

An attack on ‘50s suburbia as a bastion of gray-suited conformity is hardly a fresh idea. So what, pray tell, is the point of Revolutionary Road, besides providing a showcase for two dynamic actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, to chew the scenery in an overwrought exposition of domestic combat Connecticut-style?

There’s no denying the pair’s ability to infuse their dialogue with a wintry chill, and here they attack each other like a pair of poisonous passive aggressors, lacing every syllable with bruising bitterness. Theirs are intense, tortured performances tailor-made for awards consideration, but where is the pleasure in watching them?

The answer is nowhere. Revolutionary Road, based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates, exists in another time and world, and though the figurative house arrest of April Wheeler (Winslet) may speak to the frustrations of contemporary housewives, April’s fanciful dreams of running away to Paris seem less idealistic than childish. Her extravagant contempt for the American rat race, like Betty Draper’s in TV’s Mad Men, seems not so much a vestige of stubborn romanticism as it is a harbinger of mental imbalance.

This is key to understanding April’s character. Not to suggest that forsaking a mindless desk job (or, in her case, the thankless role of domestic taskmaster) to pursue a vision of imagined liberation is deranged. But April is so profoundly alienated from her suburban reality that she is driven to madness. There is a sort of tragic poetry in her final act of defiance, but that doesn’t change the fact that her behavior is sick and wantonly destructive.

As for her husband? Frank (DiCaprio) may be the quintessential company man, as capable of seducing a pretty young secretary as he is of closing a deal, but there is an integrity in him that Revolutionary Road doesn’t know how to handle. Early on, tired of his job, Frank agrees to follow April’s bliss and move to Paris. April applauds his decision, and so does John (Michael Shannon, of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), a tenuous family friend and self-described loon who is nevertheless presented as the sanest character in a community of malcontent husbands and hopelessly deluded housewives. But circumstances change.

Frank is offered a substantial raise. He has a wife and two children to support, and the notion of uprooting his family for a European adventure seems less romantic than reckless. Frank accepts the offer, then watches helplessly as his marriage, already on precarious ground, begins a rapid descent first into ambivalence, then into hostility. He looks to April for understanding. She meets his gaze with withering scorn.

Is Frank a stooge for choosing safety over risk, even if it means sacrificing some small portion of his soul? Is John, whom Shannon plays with fearsome conviction, really the wisest man in the room simply because he sits on life’s sidelines, thumbing his nose at the players?

Revolutionary Road seems to think so. Like Into the Wild, which foolishly romanticized a naïve young man’s fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness, director Sam Mendes’ latest celebrates idealism devoid of responsibility, as personified by characters ruinously disconnected from the world they live in.

There is tragedy in April’s predicament, trapped as she is in an increasingly arid marriage and saddled with children she neither wants nor seems to love. But it’s hard to sympathize. This is a miserable person in a story about miserable people who wallow in their own self-loathing. They fight, they cheat, they lie and fight some more. Fine acting may invigorate a bleak story, but it can’t transform pain into art, much less redeem a film as aggressively dismal as Revolutionary Road.