In 1997 Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio made cinematic history by starring in the highest grossing film of all time, Titanic. Despite its expensively hokey exterior, Titanic demonstrated that DiCaprio and Winslet have talent to burn and mutually possess an intimate, intense chemistry that keeps audiences coming back for more. Following the success of the picture, both actors skyrocketed to superstar level fame, but neither one of them succumbed to the pressure and rarely appear in mediocre work. Instead, each continues to flourish as an artist by choosing material wisely and challenging themselves to perform difficult characters.
Needless to say, their time apart from one another has been fruitful; both actors have earned critical success as well as multiple Oscar nominations since their initial pairing. The parts they’ve played over the past eleven years have ultimately helped to prepare them for the two most demanding characters of their careers thus far: Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road.
Revolutionary Road is based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same name by Richard Yates. Though the movie is somewhat plotless, it revolves around Frank and April: a pair of nobodies who think they‘re somebodies living the same 1950s suburban lie as everyone else around them. By meandering through their life decisions, the now thirty-something couple find themselves settled down with two kids in a house with a white picket fence on the prestigiously middle class Revolutionary Road. We get glimpses of who they once were: April studied to be an actress and Frank lived the charismatic life of Riley. They were once happy together.
Seven years later, Frank and April now battle their individual demons by making each other miserable. April is dealing with unhappy housewife syndrome (which would later be coined the feminine mystique by Betty Friedan), while Frank grapples with the loss of masculinity in the mindless workaday business world. They constantly bicker, moan, and full-out fight, but neither genuinely attempt to make their lives or relationship better. Eventually, this lack of communication and understanding collides with the film’s looming pessimism and disastrous consequences.
In this reunion film, Winslet and DiCaprio are full-blown adults struggling to find the beauty within themselves, their marriage, and the seemingly stagnant society surrounding them. A filmed adaptation of the book has been in the coming-and-going stage of creation since the rights were first bought in the 1960s. If you ask me, they should have let it stew a bit more on the page before bringing it to cinematic life.
Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of such films as American Beauty and Road to Perdition, was the wrong director at the helm of this project. Revolutionary Road suffers from the same bombastic arrogance that plagues the small-town America depicted in American Beauty. Both films are about contemplation and maturity, but there’s no sense of that within the film’s visual or thematic subtext.
Each character is constantly spouting exactly what they’re thinking, without really thinking about what they‘re saying or feeling. Frank and April feel good about themselves because they understand the societal trap they’re inside, but feel powerless to do anything about it. The film itself is afraid to take flight and actually make a clear statement about the society in which April and Frank live in.
That is not to say that the film doesn’t raise any potent issues and questions. Though presented like quarrels between children playing house, Frank and April’s tit-for-tat arguments with each other do address the surface level problems in the era’s middle class lifestyle. Gender roles, abortion, infidelity, and martyrdom are all nicely compressed into the story, but even those facets are too watered down to make a significant impact. Ultimately, it’s not the melodramatic potboilers that make Revolutionary Road compelling to watch; it’s the fear that every single character possesses that maintains the viewer's attention.
An “Oscar” film contender at its core, Revolutionary Road doesn’t succeed in influencing our cultural understanding of 1950s Americana. We’ve seen it all before and in much better place (Peyton Place, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, The Best of Everything, The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History). What you will get out of Revolutionary Road is the pleasure of seeing three absolutely terrific performances by Kate Winslet (who was robbed of her nomination), Leonardo DiCaprio, and relative newcomer Michael Shannon, who steals the show in his limited time on screen. Coupled with Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography, the performances are what make Revolutionary Road worth watching.