Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Revolutionary Road by Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes has dealt with alienation in two of his previous films: American Beauty and Jarhead. While in American Beauty he presented a somewhat smug and cynical protagonist whose tongue dripped irony in every other sentence, in Jarhead the main character was young and hopeful, and his outrage developed slowly (even though the way he sees himself finding fulfillment is to exercise his skill in using his weapon).

In Revolutionary Road the director once again ventures into suburbia. In adapting the acclaimed novel of the same name by Richard Yates, this time he lets a couple of cliches ("hopeless emptiness") define the problem, rather than develop the theme. The jump from romanticism to cynicism is not mediated by realism. It is not as if Frank Wheeler despairs when he works in his office. It is that he starts his day with a mood of despair. I am not denying that this is how most people live their lives (Thoreau said it thus: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation ... A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. "), what I wanted to see was if the author had any answers to why this alienation exists, and what can end it. He seemingly doesn't.

Frank and his wife, April, decide to make a fresh start in their lives, and that seems to give them hope. However, the important question (for me) is: will the fresh start not rot eventually into the same ennui and dismay? Does not wanting to change the city in which one works, in order to find fulfilment, doomed to tragic failure unless one understands the causation of the unfulfilment? Is a shift from cynicism back to naivete and romanticism enough? Or is that just the beginning? If Paris is indeed such a mecca of happiness, one should have asked Mr and Ms Wheeler, are all Parisians fulfilled and content?

The film has outstanding performances by both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. And as this review points out, it is ironical to see these two actors, who also played the romantic leads in Titanic, now trying to keep afloat in a different sense.

Some of the most terrific scenes are those in which the inner emptiness of the characters is brushed aside by them with words, acts and manners.

An explanation of the title, from the author himself (from the Wikipedia article):
"I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties."


Free-Fallin' said...

nice review. it sure is ironic that winslet and dicaprio who played two lovestruck teenagers in titanic, now all grown-up and mature actors are acting in a movie which deals with the real deal, stark realities, dissatisfaction and desperation....sort of like how life is. dewy-eyed love gets pushed into the back-burner by mundane dinner conversations, kid-crises', keeping clean bathrooms, managing work and home.

Unknown said...

I guess Paris was just some place and it could very well have been something else. And from what I could make out, April Wheeler did not expect Paris to magically end their boredom and emptiness for their entire lives. But that a new Paris could always be discovered as long as a sense of enthusiasm and willingness to experiment is shown.
Just my 2 cents...

Harmanjit Singh said...

"But that a new Paris could always be discovered as long as a sense of enthusiasm and willingness to experiment is shown. "

# Heh. But doesn't that indicate that happiness lies not in Paris, but in the experiencing of a new kind of life which takes away the jaded feelings...

Or more accurately, that the jadedness lies not in living at "Revolutionary Road" but is a feature of the human condition, which needs a different answer than just moving to a different city every few years.