American Madness

Intelligent Criticism in the Service of a Better Nation

Bouncing along the plot potholes of Revolutionary Road

Posted by Jason Ihle | 5 Comments

Emotional abuse and marital discord have not been this explicitly depicted on screen since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton devastated each other and another young couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The barbs slung in that older film were exchanged between a husband and wife, long-married and bitter. Edward Albee’s play on which it is based poked holes in the mythology of the American dream, part of which necessitates being a happily married couple.

Arriving in the same vein and more than 40 years later, but taking place in nearly the same time period is Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road, based on the novel by Richard Yates. It tells the story of a young suburban couple who appear perfect to everyone in the neighborhood, while behind closed doors Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio), who hates his job and is utterly dissatisfied with his life, and his wife April (Kate Winslet) are slowly burning toward complete marital and emotional breakdown.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe wastes no time in jumping from the introductory scene of the two beautiful young things meeting at a party to their life several years later. Now with two young children, April has all but given up on her dreams of acting. Frank watches with head lowered in shame as she performs in a shabby local production. Mendes deftly directs his actors, imbuing their backstage meeting with seething tension. There are wounds here years in the making that are about to burst open. Explode is the more apt term for what occurs between husband and wife on the drive home.

You may think the film has hit an emotional peak too soon – that the brilliant performances of DiCaprio and Winslet have dealt all their cards in the first ten minutes, but you’d be wrong. Their insults and digs into each other will grow worse beyond belief.

Mendes has explored similar ground before in American Beauty, which also focused on an unhappily married couple living a farce of a happy existence in surburbia. While there are many comparisons to be made between the two stories, they are not entirely similar. American Beauty was more about one man’s mid-life crisis, thematically focused on our inability to see the beauty of the world while we participate in the rat race of capitalistic desires for more. Here the story is focused on the couple and their inability to communicate, blaming each other for their inabilities to grab what they really want in life.

Thus is the basis for April’s big surprise for Frank. She suggests they sell everything and move to Paris where she plans to work as an assistant in a U.S. Government facility while Frank figures out what he wants to be in the world. If this strikes you as a thoroughly adolescent fantasy that has little place in real life that’s because it is. It’s no surprise that Frank’s co-workers and another young couple (friends of the Wheelers) think the idea is crazy. It’s no coincidence that the one person who thinks it’s a good idea is John (Michael Shannon), the son of the local real estate agent and neighborhood social butterfly, Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates). John has been committed to a psychiatric institute and is periodically allowed out on a day pass to visit with Frank and April because Mrs. Givings views them as completely normal.

April’s plan is an attempt to apply a Band-Aid to a hemorrhaging marriage (one in which infidelity has already seeped in). The plan, like any abrupt change to the status quo, has an immediate and noticeable (positive) effect on their relationship. But it can’t last. Before long they have returned to unleashing verbal trauma on one another.

But Shannon’s character provides one of two major flaws in the film. To be sure, Shannon gives an interesting and believable, if slightly shallow performance. When John enters into a conversation he says the things that everyone else is thinking, but that social grace teaches us to stymie. His behavior is excused by his mother because “He’s not well.” And so it is the film’s excuse, too. The character and his psychosis are a convenience, thrown in with no purpose in mind but to have someone tell the truth of their situation to Frank and April. It’s problematic least of all because the film seems to want to have it both ways. In addition to his being a plot device Haythe makes John sympathetic – a throwaway comment about the treatment of the mentally ill in the 1950s.

The film’s second major flaw is its muddied and somewhat inexplicable closing scenes. I can’t say much without giving away the game. The final culminating event is not only predictable, but a bit too dramatically far-fetched. The closing scenes that occur after want to make subtle comments about married life for both the young and the old in the suburbs. But the comments are neither subtle nor particularly interesting in their observations.


5 Responses to “Bouncing along the plot potholes of Revolutionary Road”

  1. Joel Friedlander
    January 24th, 2009 @

    What the film is really talking about, although I haven’t seen it – but based upon your precis, is the problems faced when both parties to a marriage must defer their career desires. Although the husband doesn’t seem to know what he really wants in life, the wife has the desire for an arts career. This, of course, is a straw man, because success in the arts, especially in acting, is very rare. We all know that the viability of marriages between people in the arts and “normal” people is horrendous. Some of the actors of the past were married 6 and 7 times. Cary Grant was said to say late in life something akin to, “If I’d known about the joys of parenthood, I would have had one wife and four children instead of the other way around.”

    A theater or film marriage is also a straw man in such a film; everyone knows that there is no real artistic life in the suburbs, as compared to that life in any city.

    Also, this is really about the problem of having two educated and career motivated parents. Marriage is actually a fine institution for one career oriented man and one half woman. Traditionally, the woman in a marriage gave up her soul in order to keep house and raise children. Our modern problem with marriage is that we insist in educating our women as well as we educate our men. This results in their wanting the same career tracks that the men have.

    Query, is marriage really viable if both participants are going to interact equally in society as wage earners? I don’t really think so!

    If anyone is reading this, what is your opinion?

  2. Josh
    January 25th, 2009 @

    I think ‘two wage earner’ marriage model is clearly broken. The prior, and idealized model, of the one wage earner was also broken (which this movie apparently attempts to show). Before that there was the extended family, which might have been more functional. Before THAT was the tribal model, and I would bet it was as functional as we can get. Maybe the problem has its roots in the ascension beyond subsistence living. People don’t seem happier with too much free time and too many options.

  3. Josh
    January 25th, 2009 @

    We know a lot about what doesn’t make you happy. As a rule, nothing you lack now will make you happy when you get it. People imagine they’ll be happy as soon as they get that relationship, degree, marriage, or promotion—only to obtain it, and find happiness eludes them.
    Similarly, buying things doesn’t make anybody happy. The endless disappointment of shoppers, thronging to the stores to acquire the new clothes of the season, the new car of the model year, is repeated again and again. We make our purchase, and feel happy for a while. But soon the happiness fades. The purchase didn’t do what we hoped, and we begin the buying cycle all over again, like alcoholics who have forgotten the hangover. The truth is that buying things—particularly for yourself—won’t make you happy.
    In fact, the more attention you lavish on yourself, the more unhappy you become. People focused on their bodies, their clothes, and their career aren’t happy. Look around, and see if it isn’t true. Devoting a lot of attention to yourself is actually a prescription for misery.
    If you want to be happy, forget yourself. Forget all of it—how you look, how you feel, how your career is going. Just drop the whole subject of you. We all know this is true because we’ve all had the experience of doing some task—even cleaning the sock drawer or washing the dishes—and for a while, forgetting ourselves entirely. And when we blink our eyes and come back, we realize we’ve been happy.

    - from an essay by Michael Crichton.

  4. Howard Roark
    January 28th, 2009 @

    Frank is unhappy because he did what everyone expected him to do. He knocked up his free-lovin’, sex-fiend, hippy girlfriend, got a job with the old man’s soul sucking company and moved out to the suburbs. All to bow down at the golden calf of society’s expectations.

    April is unhappy because she does what everyone expects of her, and has no ambition. Her life’s ambitions begin and end at puffing on Marlboro’s and getting cozy at the bottom of a bottle. Occasionally her neglected children scream her out of her self wallowing pity long enough for her to heat up a hot dog and tell them to go outside. A real winner there.

    We see ourselves in both characters, and yet the pattern is repeated. Each of us wishes to live the clone life of the one’s around us: same house, same car, same job, same degree, same stuff, same shit. That’s the beauty of Yates’ prose. He’s provided the flow chart of unhappiness, which everyone will repeat. Why does this story still resonate 50 years after it was first conceived and written? Because society demands conformity to the norm, regression to the mean, obedience and strict adherence to the rules.

    Contrary to the posting of the younger Friedlander, it is in forgetting the individual and pursuing the collective shibboleth of acceptance that unhappiness is found. The individual should strive for excellence of oneself, not the acceptance of all others.

  5. Aylia Fox
    February 6th, 2009 @

    I was enjoying the excrutiating tension, intriguing plot twists and polished acting in Revolutionary Road…until about three quarters of the way through when, to be honest, I thought the film’s presence and pace began to diminish. Consequently, (I am somewhat embarrassed to say) I nodded off!!

    I awoke as April was bleeding in her front room.

    What I would like to know – ie can someone tell me – did she cause her miscarriage, or was it a natural occurence?

    The answer will affect my overall view of the film.


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