Holiday Movies, Pre-Reviewed, Reviewed: Revolutionary Road

by |
12/27/2008 10:00 AM |

[In the L’s Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven’t Seen, banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let’s see how we did. Here, Henry Stewary, who wrote the one on Revolutionary Road, compares his preview to his actual response.]

I said:

Uberscreencouple Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite for the first time since Titanic to scream, weep and break chairs — because all the 90s romantics have become disillusioned 00s cynics. Mendes had only made half a good movie in his hitherto three-movie career, but this adaptation of the Richard Yates classic should boost his reputation (outside of prestige-picture-producer circles, anyway, where it’s already sound). As the film concerns marrieds disenchanted with the American Dream: Suburbia Edition — the only thing American Beauty sort of did well — Mendes nails the emotional hysteria. The film’s great virtue, though, is Roger Deakins’ sumptuous widescreen composition.

In fact…

Sam Mendes quashes any lingering doubts as to his directorial integrity: Revolutionary Road is a stinker for which I should never have gotten my hopes up. One of its most maddening aspects is something I couldn’t have foreseen, because it’s not part of the trailer: Thomas Newman’s Serious and Wistful score, on its knees for an Academy Award. Groaning strings and plaintively echoing piano chords add up to instructive intrusion, frequently undermining (or, stifling) Deakins’ rich compositions.

But the excessive and godawful music hints at a deeper problem facing Mendes: that, despite all the shouting, the red-rimmed eyes, the furious seething and spitting, Revolutionary Road is a largely emotionless film, too often a hurried, Hollywood-slick vision of malicious marital misery. Even its sexy sex scenes (as opposed to its sad ones) are devoid of sensuality. Save for DiCaprio and Winslet’s final fight — truly puckish casting, that — none of the scenes have any bite, though the actors are fine. (Kathy Bates, also from Titanic, is great in a supporting role.)

The culprit is Justin Haythe’s script. Painstakingly, to the point of painfully, faithful to Richard Yates’ source novel, except as far as Frank Wheeler’s ultimate fate, the screenplay streamlines the key scenes into an efficient narrative but sacrifices all insight as a result. The filmmakers’ tightly focused rush leaves no time to establish the suburbs as credibly oppressive (seem fine to me), no time to let the audience wonder whether the Wheelers are truly extraordinary suburbanites (they’re clearly not) or whether their dreams of expatriation are idealist but noble or brash and shallow (they’re the latter). A gorgeous and empty Cliff’s Notes literary adaptation, Revolutionary Road is this year’s Atonement.

The characters in Richard Yates’ novel seem superficially stereotypical, whether they were when the book was published or it only seems that way now. But he made them real with vivid and sympathetic psychological portraits, as compelling on the page as any virulent-screaming-match passage. The novel is well-regarded not for its storyline but for its characters’ emotional lives. Because such inner lives are tough to put on screen, at least in an Oscar-baiting Prestige Pic, Mendes compensates with a flashback structure; close-ups of frowny, furrowed faces; and that aforementioned music. Instead of exposing an emotionally rich interior, it simply gussies up a vapid exterior with clichés as trite as the film’s sense of suburban disillusionment.