Wednesday, February 04, 2009

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

I think it hit me when wife April (Kate Winslet) says to husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), in the middle of one of their many marital spats, "We only moved out here because I got pregnant, and we only had a second child to prove that the first one wasn't a mistake!". It was then that I thought about new American immigrants and what they must think when watching a scene like this. Heck, extend that view of new immigrants into the overall perspective of your typical working-class American. This must be comedy to them. It was comedy to me. Here you have a healthy, white, upper-middle class couple, with opportunities galore, money, children, and a house, and all they can do is whine, complain, and whine.

Look, I know that affluence doesn't equal happiness, and that a committed relationship between two people is one of the most difficult things that all of us will encounter, but with Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes' sole objective is to show how marriage came to birth that old cliche of "the ol' ball and chain". What's curious is that Mendes actually thought, by simply hiring a talented cast & crew, that he could somehow transform that remedial vision of his into a profound work of art. Shoot, all you need to do is watch the ridiculous trailer for Revolutionary Road, and you've seen the full-length film itself. Granted, it isn't as insulting and juvenile as Mendes' collaboration with Alan Ball in American Beauty (and thanks to the photography of Roger Deakins there are even a few moments of visual clarity), but, in the end, as with every Mendes film to date, Revolutionary Road is just as inconsequential.

The silliest spectacle in Revolutionary Road is the character of John Givings, played by Michael Shannon. John is the voice of reason. He's been through thirty electro-shock treatments, doesn't know how to brush his teeth, and is borderline insane, yet he can see the truth that the sane married couples of Connecticut cannot. He sees the "hopelessness and emptiness". In fact, that revelation is how Frank and April end up bonding with John. During a stroll through the woods, an automatically skeptical John sees fireworks when Frank admits that he and April are moving to Paris because they can't stand the emptiness of their 9-to-5 American lives anymore. "Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness", says John. What rot.

The role of John Givings is an unfortunate one for Michael Shannon. The talented actor was outstanding when he played an actual human being in last year's Shotgun Stories, but it appears Shannon took Kirk Lazurus' "looking retarded, acting retarded, but not being retarded" advice and scored himself a Best Supporting Actor nominee. Yep, he sure did. Because, you see, John Givings isn't your regular retard, he's a clairvoyant retard. In a scene that probably got the Academy idiots all wet, John calls Frank out for accepting a promotion with his company and then accuses him of getting April pregnant on purpose so it would be easier to convince her that they need to stay in Connecticut.

Kate Winslet's portrayal of April is a chore as well. It's telling when you watch her scenes opposite DiCaprio, specifically the most emotionally charged ones. DiCaprio (along with Kathy Bates, the only actor that delivers in Revolutionary Road) sweats real feeling, while Winslet emotes in the way that actors are trained to. It's a grand bore. You can see DiCaprio working, grinding through decisions and instincts in his head, while Winslet just refers back to that "how to" reference guide in her brain. Add to that the fact that April is one of the most despicable female characters to hit screens since Margot in Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding. She resents her children, mocks her husband's hard work, and fakes effort only when there is something that she craves (ie moving to Paris). Astoundingly, Mendes gives this worthless woman a spiritual send-off by shooting her, in blood-spotted skirt, before an open floor length window in a phony transcendental moment as if she's come to a beautiful decision of self-sacrifice.

But Sam Mendes saves his snarkiest moment for Revolutionary Road's final scene. We are in the home of Helen and Howard Givings (parents of John). Helen is the local real estate agent, and she's going on-and-on to her husband about the new tenants that moved into Frank and April's old house. Helen thinks they represent an ideal that she's always envisioned for her community. The camera then slowly pans to Howard. He's sitting opposite Helen in a comfy chair, looking in her direction, appearing as if he's interested. Calmly, and without a change in expression, Howard moves his hand up and turns the volume of his hearing aid down to zero. Silence. Dead sound, dead face. Cut to black. The message: marriage is prison. Yawn. Revolutionary Road is like a "ball and chain" around your brain.

61 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: I just knew we'd disagree on this. I'm actually laughing right now, because our reviews couldn't be farther apart.

There's no way I'm going to convince you that Winslet is fantastic, so I won't try. There's no way you can convince me that the film is nothing more than a condemnation of marriage.

Nope. It's a condemnation of THEIR marriage. And what's wrong with THEIR marriage? They're in it for the wrong reasons.

See, yeah, the immigrants might laugh. But guess what: the immigrants knew what was most important to them in their lives: survival, promise in America. The Wheelers don't know. That they've found relative success easily is part of their problem. They've never proven themselves. And they look to do just that, and that's when they might be like the immigrants, and then they blow it.

Look, I'm not trying to convince you. But the 'they're not suffering that much' argument is problematic. If we disqualify this film because people have 'bigger problems' than the Wheelers, well, gosh, how many others do we have to disqualify. Suffering is suffering. You don't have to admire the Wheelers or their perspective on life to recognize that they are actually unhappy.

Anyway, as always, I love the passion with which you write your reviews. And I find the implementation of Michael Shannon's character to be problematic. So we're at least somewhat close there.

Nice job, Foxy.

bill r. said...

Haven't seen the movie, but I read the novel last year, and it was nowhere near as simplistic as you make the film sound. I'd be more willing to adopt a "wait and see" attitude about the film if Mendes hadn't claimed this was a "feminist" story, which I don't think anyone in their right mind would claim about Richard Yates's book.

Anyway. I liked Road to Perdition.

aunt john said...

Fox, I totally agree with the sentiment, "It's a grand bore." I saw this the same day I saw THE WRESTLER. Thankfully I saw THE WRESTLER second, so I was able to forget how god-awful REVOLUTIONARY ROAD was.

Fox said...

Jason-

Oh, I will convince you if it's the last thing I do!!! :)

There's no way you can convince me that the film is nothing more than a condemnation of marriage. Nope. It's a condemnation of THEIR marriage.

Now, wait a minute. Show me a marriage in the film that is depicted in a successful, non-cynical way? I mean, Howard turning his hearing aid down on Helen at the end is probably the films strongest condemnation.

And what about the Wheelers neighbors? To me, Mendes shows them to have the same internal problems as the Wheelers, yet they aren't strong enough to admit it.

If Mendes had shown another marriage in the film in even a somewhat positive light, then I might agree with you.

Sure, "suffering is suffering", but what kind of suffering is actually going on here? Is it that April can't act as much as she'd like to, and Frank doesn't like his job? Well, boo-hoo. And what reason does April have in thinking that her governmental desk job in Paris is gonna be any better than Franks?

Bill-

Umm... I'm disturbed right now that Mendes called this a "feminist" story. True, I'm only coming from the perspective of the film, but if he thinks he depicted feminism in Revolutionary Road - The Motion Picture, then he is a crazy man.

Did anyone else feel that way about the film? I'd like to hear an argument for that, b/c in my eyes, April comes off as a pretty serious witch. Frank is selfish and dirty as well, but I thought it was clear that April was the worse of the two. Maybe it's b/c Winslet's performance was so uninspired. Right, Jason? :)

Fox said...

Aunt John-

That's funny, when I walked out of Revolutionary Road, the theater next to it was playing The Wrestler and I could hear Bruce Springsteen's song coming through the doors. It kinda helped wash some of the stink away.

bill r. said...

Fox - Mendes's "feminist" claims are really bizarre, aren't they? Again, I haven't seen the film, but my understanding is that, at least as far as the plot goes, the film hews to the book pretty closely.

The book is generally praised (or condemned) for tearing the lid off of the "suburban dream" and exposing the ugly truth inside (or whatever), but that's not really what it's about. It's about how the Wheelers are so up their own asses, who think they're so above it all, and how April and Frank (as Jason says about the film) married really badly.

As for the depiction of other marriages, in the novel the Campbells are very similar to the Wheelers in their arrogance and their belief that they're above the suburbs, that they're so clearly made for greater things. But, Fox, your point about the Givings' is a good one -- specifically the ending with the hearing aid, which is the same as the novel -- and all I can say (again, regarding the novel only) is that Yates was maybe a bit of a misanthrope. Which is fine by me, because sometimes so am I. I think if you were able to ask Yates what the "point" of his novel was, he would not claim that it had any great message to impart, other than that, maybe, life was sometimes hell. Ask Mendes, and you're told that his movie is about feminism. And although I acknowledge that I completely invented Yates's answer to a question I never actually asked anybody, I think there is a big difference in the way stories are viewed by people who write them as a serious endeavor, and someone who reads them and, in Mendes's case, adapts them.

Readers look for "points" far too often in fiction, while generally speaking writers don't, or at least whatever they regard the "point" of a story to be is far from the most important thing to them.

Check out this audio interview with Mike Leigh about Happy-Go-Lucky (which I haven't seen). The interviewer keeps trying to find symbols and grand statements in the film, and Leigh keeps saying, basically, "That's a load of shit."

http://www.edrants.com/segundo/mike-leigh/

Fox said...

Bill-

It's about how the Wheelers are so up their own asses, who think they're so above it all, and how April and Frank (as Jason says about the film) married really badly.

That's true, and I think I would have appreciated that if Mendes was a competent enough director to make that apparent to the viewer. But he isn't (and he doesn't).

Though Mendes does show that Frank & April "are up their own asses", he still portrays them as superior people. They are adventurous, artistic, too sophisticated for the environment they live in,... that "hopeless and empty" environment. But Mendes never makes the effort to show that that environment actually ISN'T "hopeless and empty" to large amount of people. If he had, I would maybe agree with Jason's interpretation.

And that leads me to what bugs me about John Givings. He's clearly portrayed in the film as the only person who "gets it". Yet he's a terrible person that gets ridiculously apologized for because he's "not well". (Perhaps John Givings the surrogate Yates, if Yates indeed was a misanthrope.)

I think there is a big difference in the way stories are viewed by people who write them as a serious endeavor, and someone who reads them and, in Mendes's case, adapts them.

Agreed. And that's why I think it can sometimes be damaging to look for answers from the writer, director, etc. Simply b/c someone like Yates or Bunuel or Leigh may think an interpretation is "a load of shit", doesn't mean that it is. (BTW... I'm not saying that you were implying that.)

However, I do think Leigh (btw, haven't listened to that interview yet, I'll have to wait until tonight...) is often correct in those type of exchanges. For example, when he contantly has to defend a character like Johnny in Naked.

Also, sometimes I think filmmakers, writers, etc. are just being either cheeky or "holding their cards to their chests" when they dismiss an interpretation. Bunuel was a master at this. To me, he did it as a way of "dude, fu*k off and watch the movie and think about it for yourself... don't ask me to tell you what it means."

Good Stuff guys!!!

Marilyn said...

I haven't seen this movie or read the book, but it seems to me that if you're going to talk in 2008about suburbia, you're going to have to find some original way to approach the material. Lives of quiet desperation just don't hack it, and really, suburbia isn't what it used to be, at least not in the United States. And that may be what's wrong with Mendes' approach - he's English, and they not only have a tendency to rigidly adhere to the glorious past, they're at least 20 years behind the U.S. in social attitudes.

I had a real problem with Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days and explained to Christoph Huber, whom I know slightly and who is Austrian, that the film is passe. He said, "But that's how suburbia in Austria is." I severely doubt that, but it doesn't matter. Finding ugliness behind the carefully trimmed lawns just doesn't resonate anymore.

The suburb I grew up in was all-white European. So was my high school. My niece and nephew's graduating classes from the same high school were as multiethnic as you want, with class and racial tensions that just didn't exist there in the 50s, 60, or even 70s.

I really don't know what was on Mendes' mind when he decided to make this film, but when you have films like Funny Games from the new king of the new suburban angst that up the ante and deal with the real savagery - to my mind, the privileged white who are furious about their slipping prerogatives - a film about suburbia that plays it straight just doesn't stand a chance.

Fox said...

Finding ugliness behind the carefully trimmed lawns just doesn't resonate anymore.

Marilyn-

Agreed. I think the last film that truly did that successfully was Blue Velvet [NOTE: maybe on the comic side, something like an Edward Scissorhands or The Burbs did it right, but comedy, I think, is a whole other realm], and the reason David Lynch pulled it off is that he doesn't show contempt for the small town. Fans of his know that he loves small town eccentricity, and that he values many things about it.

You also speak of the different ages and eras, and how Mendes vision would connect with a modern audience. I'll take that further by saying how silly this film feels in our current economic times. It feels a little goofy watching a drama with two people complaining about their jobs, while in the real world there are layoffs and unemployment is rising. My point is that Revolutionary Road seems to have little social relevance right now, and further, that people like Mendes are more disconnected with the general public that ever.

Now. On Funny Games. That's an interesting tie-in, Marilyn. I haven't seen the U.S. version, but when I saw the Austrian one, I felt like it was more of a commentary on media violence and our fascination with it specifically in movies, rather than a dig at white suburbia. Though I never wished to watch Funny Games again, or the remake, I may do so now to look for what you saw. Which version did you see, btw?

Marilyn said...

Part of the American (have to finish that - on the to-do list). And that's I think why I see it differently.

Pat said...

Bill's summation of Richard Yates' novel is perfect, so I won't add anything to that. I didn't know that Mendes considered this a feminist novel, but considering that WInslet (ie Mrs. Mendes) told Charlie Rose how "courageous" April was, I'm not surprised. April has always been the least sympathetic character in the story for me. I don't know how anyone who's actually read the book could consider it a feminist work.

I actually very much liked "Revolutinary Road", and thought it was a successful adaptation of the novel. And believe me, I went in with my hackles up because I love the novel and don't have any patience with half-assed film adaptations of good books.(I'll admit Winslet's performance was OK, but the weakest one in the film. Otherwise, I think the all actors were perfectly cast.) But, in all honesty, I can't see it through the same eyes as someone who hasn't read the book. Knowing the back stories on most of these characters -info that isn't supplied in the book - gives me a different slant on them. I believe most of the actors were able to distill elements of their characters' history into their performances.

The bottom line is, that when I finished reading the book, I felt sad, wrung out and absolutely exhausted - it had such a powerful emotional effect on me. And I had exactly the same reaction to the film.

Fox said...

Pat-

Thanks for your comments.

I'm starting to notice how important this book was (is) to a number of people. Being someone that barely reads any fiction, I didn't even know about the book, Revolutionary Road, until recently.

What's interesting about your positive reaction towards the movie is that it seems that perhaps the book assisted you in liking the movie. Do you think that's true? From what Bill said, the book seems to gives a much more varied or complex look at the married couples than what Mendes does. Do you think perhaps you were able to fill in some of the blanks b/c you knew the book so well? (I don't mean to say that you saw blanks, maybe you didn't and thought Mendes did a fine job... I'm just drawing from my own view of it).


I find it odd that Winslet said that April was "courageous". In what way??? That she kills herself? That she resents/neglects her children? That she pretends to make an effort only because she wants to move to Paris? That she tells her husband that she never loved him but just thought he was "cute the night they met". April comes off as extremely self-centered and dangerously selfish to me. "Courageous" is a word I would never use to describe her.

bill r. said...

What's interesting about your positive reaction towards the movie is that it seems that perhaps the book assisted you in liking the movie.

I'm sure that happens. I can't speak for Pat in this case, obviously, but I'm sure I've had that experience before.

And Pat, I agree: in the novel, April is practically a monster. Frank is no great prize himself, but, as I remember it, he does try a little harder, he feels a bit more guilt about his actions, than she does. The fact that Winslet thinks of her as courageous is actually very alarming to me. I don't know how the movie plays, but it sounds like it was made by a bunch of people who didn't get it at all. Not only that, but I'm tempted to go so far as to say that they resemble the Wheelers themselves, but at the same time are blind to what's really going on, and therefore don't see what's so wrong with them.

I realize I'm psychoanalyzing/judging people I've never met, but viewing April Wheeler as "courageous" is sort of repellent to me.

Pat said...

Fox -

Your question to me is the same one I'm asking myself. Knowing the back stories on the Wheelers, the Campbells, even poor Maureen, the girl from the office who Franks seduces... I think I may have just filled in blanks for myself where Mendes didn't bother to. I think having read the novel definitely improved on my understanding of all the characters.

Winslet labeled April's idea to move to Paris as "courageous" (instead of desperate and delusional, as I think most of us would have recognized it). She said April realized she was unhappy, but that she could do something to change that. I really don't see how anyone could have that take on April's actions. That interview, which I saw before I saw the movie, really worried me.

bill r. said...

Pat - So how is it possible that the movie works for you in the same was the novel does? I'm not actually challenging you, and besides, I know of other people who read the book the same way you and I did and also liked the movie. I'm just really perplexed that a movie made by people who really seemed to not get the book were able to make a movie that plays well to at least some people who did.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I haven't seen it or read the book but I agree with Marilyn on this: Lives of quiet desperation just don't hack it. Really, in the 21st century it just seems an out of date exploration but again I haven't seen it or read the book.

But I do know this: I don't Mendes, I do like Leigh, I hate American Beauty.

Jonathan Lapper said...

That should be I don't like Mendes. I guess it could also be Mendes sucks.

Pat said...

Since I keep making reference to back stories - here's some of what's not in the film (and Bill, if I get any of this wrong, let me know):

April is the product of a deeply dysfunctional childhood. She was virtually abandoned by her parents to be raised by maiden aunts - mother died young in a dyring-out clinic, father rarely visited. Prety much friendless and a loner thoughout her school years. Also, in the book, April had threatened to abort their first child by the same method she eventually uses to get rid of their third.

Frank comes from a conventional, middle-class background - parents were married till death did them part. He never quite got the approval from his father that he secretly craved.

Shep Campbell originally came from an upper class/blue blood kind of background. Like Frank, he spent time in Paris at the end of the war - unlike Frank, he actually hung out with artists and writers. Frank, although he talks big about Paris, admits to himself in an interior monlogue, that he spent most of his time in Paris looking through cafe windows from the outside and wishing he could be a part of the sophisticated crowd within. Shep feels he's married beneath himself.

Maureen Grube, the secretary, in the novel lives with a roommate - an older, wordly-wise divorcee who she tries to emulate.

There are also a few scenes in the book from the perspective of Frank and April's children - as you can imagine, they are not happy children.

Pat said...

Oh,and to answer your question, Bill - I'm not sure everyone making the film was clueless. I didn't know about Mendes' notion that it was a feminist story, and frankly didn't pick up on that when I saw the film. DeCaprio was also in that interview with Charlie Rose, but his take on Frank was absolutely in line with the novel's.

Maybe I should go back and see it again to see if how I feel about it the second time.

bill r. said...

Pat - that more or less matches up to my memory of the book, but all of you, whether you've read the book or seen the movie, or both or neither, should read this:

http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2009/01/for_sale_on_revolutionary_road.html#more

I've been hard on Jim Emerson lately, but he is so all over what we've all been talking about here. And deep down, he gets at the heart of the biggest problem with adapting to novels to film (or any other medium).

Marilyn said...

I'm actually not surprised Winslet would think her character was courageous and may have let on to her husband that she thought April was a feminist. Actors and actresses have to like their characters, or at least find something redeeming about them personally, find some way into them to fill them with life.

bill r. said...

Let's try that again:

http://blogs.suntimes.com
/scanners/2009/01/for_sale_on_revolutionary_road
.html#more

Fox said...

All of this makes me wonder why people worry so much about the transfer of novels to the big screen.

Again, I probably can't relate as much b/c I don't read fiction, but why can't the movie be the director's vision and the book be the writer's vision... and that's that?

As far as I'm concerned, when the writer sells the rights to his/her book then he/she should have no gripes about the film. The film owes nothing to the book.

I know, I know... again, I'm in an easy position b/c I don't read much fiction. Trust me, I understand the loving reader wanting to fight for the reputation of a book they love. It's similar to the way somebody may be concerned about the legacy of a classic film if a remake of it is done.

I do find the way a book can effect the perception of film for a viewer - like it did for Pat with Revolutionary Road - but I don't get the discussion over the problem with adapting books into movies.

Fox said...

I haven't seen it or read the book but I agree with Marilyn on this

WOW! What a surprise!!!

just kidding, jerkface.

Fox said...

I'm actually not surprised Winslet would think her character was courageous and may have let on to her husband that she thought April was a feminist. Actors and actresses have to like their characters, or at least find something redeeming about them personally, find some way into them to fill them with life.

Marilyn-

Can I say that I don't get the Kate Winslet thing?

I'm not saying your pro-Winlset, just that your comment makes me think that perhaps she's given too much credit as this already legendary actress... and for what?

Outside of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Holiday (yes, The Holiday!) I haven't really liked her in anything. I think she's always fine at what she does, and she's very competent, but "one of the greatest actors of our time"? Eh.

The reason I like her in the two films I mentioned above (and I think she is just outstanding in Eternal Sunshine...) is that I think she finally let go of her formal training, her "Britishness". I wish she would do that more often.

Jason Bellamy said...

...it seems to me that if you're going to talk in 2008 about suburbia, you're going to have to find some original way to approach the material.

But this isn't a movie about suburbia. It isn't. And so if people who haven't even seen the film are jumping to that conclusion, perhaps it's a combination of misleading marketing and/or a preconception based on the lingering memories of "American Beauty" -- not to mention critics who have lazily labeled it a film about suburbia. It isn't. It just isn't. If perhaps people who read the book (I haven't) have projected deeper meaning on to the film, just as many might be projecting "American Beauty" on to this film. They really aren't very similar. (One example of how it's not about suburbia: What's Frank's largest unhappiness? His job. Where's his job? In the city.)

Other replies:

And what reason does April have in thinking that her governmental desk job in Paris is gonna be any better than Franks?

None. She has no reason. It's an illusion. And Paris might blow up in their faces. The film never suggests that it will solve their problems. The characters foolishly believe it will. (Of course, at least then they'd be taking action...any action.) Don't make the mistake of thinking that because the Wheelers are the main characters that the film admires them and agrees with everything they say or do.

He still portrays them as superior people. They are adventurous, artistic, too sophisticated for the environment they live in,... that "hopeless and empty" environment.

OK. I'll give you that the film never shows us a non-hopeless environment. But the film never shows us that the Wheelers are indeed better than those around them. They just think they are. And, let's be honest, a lot people sit in their living room and look out and think they have it figured out a little bit better than the people around them. April is a failure as an actress. Frank is a failure in his career (at least, he feels like one). Both are failures as parents and as partners. Really, the film suggests they're better? No. It just suggests that they've always believed that they were superior, and now they're waking up to the truth. THAT is what this film is about. The only time the Wheelers appear that they might indeed be special is when they try to escape to Paris. And how does that turn out?

My point is that Revolutionary Road seems to have little social relevance right now, and further, that people like Mendes are more disconnected with the general public that ever.

OK. But what's Mendes supposed to do? Sit on this movie until times change? The story doesn't even take place in 2009. I see that this might not be the ideal subject matter for today. But we also haven't been to the moon in my lifetime. Does that mean Ron Howard was wrong to make "Apollo 13"? Films don't need to be metaphors for the era in which they are released.

Lives of quiet desperation just don't hack it.

Wait a minute. Really? Stories about quiet desperation are out of bounds? Because no one feels that way? This seems really dismissive.

I find it odd that Winslet said that April was "courageous". In what way???

(SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS PARAGRAPH) First of all, April doesn't commit suicide. Her death is accidental. That matters.

Now, was April courageous? Sure. She recognized that her life was unhappy. She came up with a drastic plan to try and take control of her life and change it. She did so at a time when women taking control of their lives was rare. That's pretty courageous. Is she naive? Sure. But the act takes courage.

By the end is she desperate? Oh, no question. By the end she's an empty shell. But that doesn't mean that the initial attempt lacked courage.

That said, if someone reads her character as just desperate from the start, well, I can see that. Just so long as we're not saying she's desperate because of suburbia.

Howard turning his hearing aid down on Helen at the end is probably the films strongest condemnation.

Yeah... I could read it that way. Or it could be read like a joke that you'd find on any sitcom about two loving often bickering people in a healthy, happy, role-model-y marriage. Again, given the context of the other poor relationships, I can see this reading. But at no other time does Howard seem at odds with Helen. He seems quit happy. Doesn't mean that after all these years he doesn't get tired of her hot air. Let's be honest: everyone who has ever been in a relationship identifies with that moment.

OK. Enough from me.

Marilyn said...

Jason - I can't really address your points because you have two legs up on me. I wasn't really responding to the movie so much as the conversations I've read surrounding it. It was my impression that this film was a critique of the conformity and vacuousness of suburbia as well as an unhappy couple who never thought they'd end up living such unremarkable lives.

I can relate to the feeling of wanting to get away from suburbia. I grew up there and couldn't wait to get into the city to see what "real life" was all about. That's not an uncommon goal for a lot of people, and it was certainly more the case when the suburbs were more homogeneous (at least where I live) than they are now.

Of course, suburbia - or even period suburbia - is not off limits, and it appears that Mendes put together a film for you that explores all the complexities of human beings living in that time in a way that universalizes those feelings. I can only say that many, many films and TV shows do not go beyond the cliches, and a number of people I've read say that this film falls into that same trap. The idea of "quiet desperation" as applied to suburbia IS a cliche. I'd steer you to Ikiru to see a superb look at quiet desperation and someone's determination (successful this time) to escape it. I'd welcome a thousand films about quiet desperation if they were all as good as Ikiru.

Fox - I wasn't saying Winslet is a great actress, only what I thought she might be thinking about when saying her character is courageous. I enjoy her as an actress, and she's been in some good films. I have to think she contributed to their success. Great? No, but maybe one day.

Jason Bellamy said...

Marilyn: I understand. And that's why I want to keep directing the conversation to what the film is about at the core, because so many critics have done a disservice to it by calling it a movie about getting away from suburbia. Really it's about getting away from a lie. (The film is actually overt about this.) For the Wheelers, suburbia is part of their lie.

Now, suburbia is a character in the film. But to say this is a movie about suburbia is to say that "Manhattan" is a movie about New York.

And, yes, quiet desperation applied to suburbia is a cliche. No question. And I think the movie is being profiled because of it. There are characters living in suburbia. And the characters are quietly desperate. And so people think it's a package deal -- a movie about the quiet desperation of suburbia. But it isn't. Because Frank would be just as miserable in his job if he still lived in the city. And April would still be unhappy if she was doing nothing more than playing the mother role. It's about the lie. What the lie is doesn't matter.

I haven't seen "Ikiru." I should. I've just added it to the Netflix queue. I pasted in that passage just because I cringe though when I see conversations wandering into the, "It's a cliche; it's been done before" territory. Because how many stories are really "new" at this point? The same old stories work again and again if they're done well. The trouble is, if we go in expecting to see something that's about nothing more than a condemnation of suburbia, that's all people will see.

Jason Bellamy said...

Separate comment on Winslet's "greatness" debate ...

Could this be a case where the argument that she isn't great is because we're overly careful to put that title on folks in the present? Because I'd look at it this way: If Winslet isn't great, then who is on the short list of actresses from her generation who are great (as proven over a period of time)?

Now, maybe folks here have a long list and it just doesn't include Winslet. Fair enough. But I've always thought it interesting that when it comes to legends of the past, actors/actresses can be in one or two classic films and no one disputes that they were great actors or actresses. No one says, "Oh, Grace Kelly was great in X, Y, and Z, but did you see her in Q...ugh!" (Note: I love Grace Kelly. Just an example. I'm assuming she gave a flawed performance at some point in her career.)

Anyway, it's just an interesting tangent...

Marilyn said...

Actually, Jason, Manhattan IS a movie about New York, at least from my point of view. I used to visit NYC a lot, loved it, and Manhattan was the movie I'd rent when I was "homesick" for it.

I don't know if I agree that being in a classic film has conferred greatness on that many actors. John Wayne is an obvious example - many people love him, but even his most ardent fans would not claim he was a great actor (underrated, maybe, but not great). There are many others who are good, really good, but don't quite make it to great. I do think that word has been and should be reserved for those who have shown time and again that they can take a character and him or her real, complex, affecting, etc.

It's too soon to see if Winslet is destined for greatness, but I'd keep my eye on her. I'd nominate her based just on Heavenly Creatures!

Pat said...

Jason
"...so many critics have done a disservice to it by calling it a movie about getting away from suburbia. Really it's about getting away from a lie."

You're right on the money there - that's ESACTLY what both the novel and the film are about. If you got that out of the film without ever having read the book, then I'd say (for you anwyeay) Mendes got it right.

On the subject of Winslet, I think she's a terrifically talented actress (I particularly like her in "Heavenly Creatures," "Eternal Sunshine.." and "Iris." She's fine in "Revolutionary Road," but I think she's considerably outshined by Leo DeCaprio.

Pat said...

Yikes! I meant "that's EXACTLY...:"

If only I could type... :(

Marilyn said...

Maybe I shouldn't say this, but one of the writers in my writers group gave me a copy of RR for my birthday and said that my novel (unfinished) reminded me a lot of it.

Marilyn said...

reminded HIM, not me.

Fox said...

Jason-

I agree that Revolutionary Road isn't primarily about suburbia - I think it's about "how terrible marriage is" - but you can't say that a critique of suburban life doesn't play some part in the film.

One of the central lines in the movie is "we only moved out here b/c I got pregnant". April obviously shows disdain for the suburbs. And what about when she puts on the generic housewife get up and cooks Frank breakfast on his first day of the new job??? Come on, dude. Maybe the book isn't so direct about it, but Mendes is obviously taking a shot at the "hell of suburbia" there.

Jason Bellamy said...

Actually, Jason, Manhattan IS a movie about New York, at least from my point of view. I used to visit NYC a lot, loved it, and Manhattan was the movie I'd rent when I was "homesick" for it.

OK, so if I said: "What's 'Manhattan' about?" you'd say, "New York!"? If you would, well, okay. You got me. I love "Manhattan." And I love it for its love of Manhattan. That's why I use it as an example. But strip away the setting and place it in Toledo and you've still got more or less the same story, the same themes. Strip away all the other dramatic bits and show just the Manhattan eye-candy and then what have you got?

So ...

Yes, Manhattan is a main ingredient of that film. No question. Suburbia is a main ingredient of "Revolutionary Road." No question. But we're being reductive if we only look at it according to that one ingredient.

Fox: Yes, Mendes takes shots at suburbia. I'm not saying he doesn't. But that's different than saying it's a movie about the evils of suburbia. That's all I'm trying to get across.

As for your examples ...

The "out here" line is inconsequential. It could as easily apply to his in-city job, or to their kids, or whatever. "Out here" is where they happen to be. Why? Because they lied to themselves about the kind of life they wanted. That doesn't mean suburbia is bad. It means suburbia is bad for the Wheelers. Wherever they fit, it ain't there. I come away from the film feeling that the Wheelers don't really fit anywhere because they don't know who they are. That's an insult to them and a compliment of the film, in my mind.

As for the final breakfast: Yes, she dresses up and plays the role. It's no different than what Frank is going to do that day. He puts on his suit. He goes into the city. He goes to his job. He pretends to care. So is "Revolutionary Road" a condemnation of working in the city? No. And no one is saying so. And yet doesn't the film take just as much time looking at his misery at work as April's misery at home?

Again -- and I know everyone must be tired of me -- it's a condemnation of the lie. What the lie is doesn't matter.

Fox said...

Somes replies to Jason's replies:

Yeah... I could read it that way. Or it could be read like a joke that you'd find on any sitcom about two loving often bickering people in a healthy, happy, role-model-y marriage. Again, given the context of the other poor relationships, I can see this reading. But at no other time does Howard seem at odds with Helen. He seems quit happy. Doesn't mean that after all these years he doesn't get tired of her hot air. Let's be honest: everyone who has ever been in a relationship identifies with that moment.

The fact that Mendes ends the film on that scene is his abrupt way of condemning their marriage and marriage in general. I can't possibly see how it could be read like a sitcom. (I'm not saying that you read it that way, but you implied that it could be). The mood before that scene is somber. April is dead and we see Frank running through the street in tears. This ain't a comedic context.

True you could apply any fantasies you want to it, but we can only work with what Mendes has presented us, and in that instance he's presented us with juxtopositions of images that tell us Howard is sick of Helen. Plus, I think Mendes shows that Helen typically dominates the territory when they are at the Wheeler's home. She's the one constantly apologizing for John, or driving the coversations. She has Howard under her thumb. If she doesn't, why doesn't Howard speak up and say "Honey, would you please stop talking about this for a bit? I'm tired." It's b/c that wouldn't give the anti-marriage message that Mendes wants to convey.

(SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS PARAGRAPH) First of all, April doesn't commit suicide. Her death is accidental. That matters.

We don't know that. Frank says "she did this to herself". Yes, he means the abortion, but with the way Mendes shoots the scene of her doing that in a pseudo-spiritual style, it can be believed that she may have intended to kill herself. April calls the ambulance and says, "I need help", but that still doesn't guarantee that she wasn't praying for death.

Now, was April courageous? Sure. She recognized that her life was unhappy. She came up with a drastic plan to try and take control of her life and change it. She did so at a time when women taking control of their lives was rare. That's pretty courageous. Is she naive? Sure. But the act takes courage.

The plan she takes is selfish. If you think a bank robber is courageous for robbing a bank, then, ok, a bank robber is "courageous", but I would hate to give such terrible people that honorable word.

Fox said...

Jason-

You said...

And yet doesn't the film take just as much time looking at his misery at work as April's misery at home?

I don't think so. Not at all. I think Revolutionary Road is much more concerned with April's unhappiness. And I think Frank seems kind of excited about his promotion even though he doesn't want to admit it to himself.

Frank is fighting through and trying to make things work. He hasn't given up. April already has. When she's cooking breakfast for him, she is mocking him... but he doesn't get it! When he is sitting across from her, he begins to sprout happiness. When he comes down the stairs and into the kitchen in his suit and sad eyes (eyes that are sad b/c she just told him she never loved him!), he's sad about April, not his job. When he sees that she seems to have accepted their station in life by fixing him breakfast and sitting down with him to show interest in his work, we can see promise in his eyes. He tells her he "really enjoyed" that moment they had during breakfast. Frank is optimistic at this point.

Fox said...

Again -- and I know everyone must be tired of me

Oh don't be silly! This is great!

Pat said...

With regard to April's so-called courage, I'm with Fox. April's actions are driven by nothing more that her bottomless emotional needs and her inability to see or care how those actions will affect anyone else around her. (Not to be a broken record here, but the novel made very clear how traumatic the proposed Paris move was for the Wheelers' children. The most courageous thing she could have done was to see the shrink Frank wanted to send her to.

And Jason, I'm going to vehmeently disagree with you about "Manhattan." You could not transplant that story to Toledo or anywhere else - it wouldn't make sense because the characters are meant to portray a very particular class of people that were specific to NYC in the late 70's.

Fox said...

Pat-

One of the lingering things about the film, for me, was how little Mendes paid mind to the children. Perhaps that was intentional b/c in his effort to portray them as neglectful parents, but it would still have given us that perspective had he given us at least a teensy but of kid POV.

All we really get is the scene when they are telling them, at bedtime, that they are moving to Paris, and then the shot of the little girl running away from April in the front yard when she tells them they're not.

Again, that doesn't bug ME that it apparently doesn't line up with the novel, it just bugs me that he didn't use them more as a visual tool for the story.

Jason Bellamy said...

Okay then, more replies ...

* I'll give you that the last scene suggests a level of importance by nature of being the last scene. It's just my gut feeling that Mendes doesn't mean for that to be the nail in the coffin of marriage. But if that's your hunch to that point, then, yes, that's the way that scene will play. And I can't argue with it one bit.

* April's fate (spoilers here, if anyone is foolishly still reading): OK, Fox, you can't say I'm applying some fantasy to the above and then read more into April's demise than what is seen and heard. The woman wants an abortion. Is she willing to risk her life to have one? Obviously. But you don't put towels down on the ground for a suicide attempt. And you don't call for help. If you want to read what's there, let's read what's there. ("She did this to herself" simply means that she committed an act that led to her hospitalization.)

* April vs Frank: You're right. I was thinking about this more and I was wrong to say that the film spends as much time on Frank's unhappiness at work as it does on April's unhappiness at home. It spends more time with Frank. As evidence I give you: the grim march to work at Grand Central Station; the hopelessness at his desk in several scenes; the self-pitying speech over his career at the restaurant with the drunk girl; and then even the number of moments when he decides that, yes, getting out of that job would make him happy. Etc. Again, none of those scenes has a thing to do with suburbia. That was my point.

* Seriously, where do you get that April gives up before Frank? He's the one banging chicks in the secretarial pool. She's the one who says, 'Let's wake up; we're not happy.' And he's the one who nixes the Paris move that she dreamed up for both of them and that they both seemed to be excited about. Yes, after all of that, she gives up. He crushes her spirit. He tells her that if she doesn't want another child that she must not love the first two. This is because he cares about her? No. It's because Frank is an awful, scared man who is desperate to find a way out of having to prove himself in life. He takes his insecurities out on her, and he breaks her. (DiCaprio is marvelous in those scenes.)

* Yes, at the end he sheepishly goes into the kitchen and he's surprised that she's now playing the role of dutiful wife. Well, uh, shouldn't he be? He's the guy banging other women. He's the guy who has told her she was crazy. He's the guy who wasn't man enough to say he was too scared to go to Paris, so he tried to wait out the whole 12 weeks deadline so that the decision would be made for them. For all of this it's a fault of April that she doesn't love him anymore and said something to hurt him (because clearly she did love him; we see as much)? Come on. She's no saint. I'm not saying that she is. But, yes, Frank has given up. He's absolutely given up. He's willing to go on being the same Knox man he never wanted to be. He's just happy at the end because he doesn't have to prove himself. His big promotion came by accident. So, yeah, compared to testing himself at life, he's happy with the status quo. That's not trying.

* Fine. April is selfish. Not courageous. I'm fine with that reading. I don't think it matters much. It's something Winslet said in an interview. What she thinks is what she thinks.

* "Manhattan": Ugh. I was afraid of this. I'm not suggesting that the whole film isn't tied to its setting. It is. But, really, would people honestly say this phrase: "'Manhattan' is a movie about New York"? I don't think they would. So why is "Revolutionary Road" "a film about suburbia"? Or maybe let's go this route: Let's say "Manhattan" is a film about New York. Does that mean that all of Allen's pictures set in New York are about New York? If not, then why are so many people (and I'm speaking about critics, not the people here), lazily jumping to the conclusion that "Revolutionary Road" must be a film about the suburbs? Because "American Beauty" was?

That was my original point. In my review I used "Casablanca" as an example. Yes, settings matter to "Manhattan" and "Casablanca" more than the setting of, say, "Seven," which actually takes place Who Knows Where. But I still don't think anyone would start off conversation about "Manhattan" by saying something like: "It's an examination of New York life in the 1970s."

Pat said...

Actually, yes, many people would say that "Manhattan" is about New York. Google it and take a look at the many articles and reviews out there. The majority will refer to it as "a love letter to New York," "a valentine to New York," and so on, in that vein. Allen himself said that New York was one of the characters in the film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yes, one of the characters. I said that too. And being a love letter to New York is a heck of a lot different than being about New York, in my mind. (Also: A lot of people are writing that "Revolutionary Road" is about suburbia, too. But that's wrong.)

Anyway, I'll give this one up because we're drifting from my original intent. Poor example. My bad.

Fox said...
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Fox said...
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Fox said...

Jason-

"* April vs Frank: You're right. I was thinking about this more and I was wrong to say that the film spends as much time on Frank's unhappiness at work as it does on April's unhappiness at home. It spends more time with Frank. As evidence I give you: the grim march to work at Grand Central Station; the hopelessness at his desk in several scenes; the self-pitying speech over his career at the restaurant with the drunk girl; and then even the number of moments when he decides that, yes, getting out of that job would make him happy. Etc. Again, none of those scenes has a thing to do with suburbia. That was my point."

I don't know why you're still debating the "suburbia" angle with me. I never took that stance. I agree with you there. My view is that Revolutionary Road is an anti-marriage film, not one that takes a primary stance against the suburbs.

All of what you say above is true, but that does nothing to argue against the idea that April's unhappiness is portrayed as the heaviest one in the film. Frank sees his unhappiness (as you listed above) and tries to work around it/work through it. April never sacrifices for the family or for Frank. The only time she appears happy is when she wants to move to Paris "for Frank". But we know she doesn't want to movie "for Frank" b/c she tells us later that she never loved him. And lord we know that that wasn't just a slip of the passionate tongue by the way she treats him after that outburst. Frank reaches out to her, she rejects him.

* Seriously, where do you get that April gives up before Frank? He's the one banging chicks in the secretarial pool. She's the one who says, 'Let's wake up; we're not happy.' And he's the one who nixes the Paris move that she dreamed up for both of them and that they both seemed to be excited about. Yes, after all of that, she gives up.

Oh, I totally disagree...

April has given by the time we see her in the play. In the car ride home she is already done with it. Frank (AGAIN!) reaches out to her and she just bitch slaps him. She walks away from him, from the situation. She's over it all, she always is! And when her idea of Paris comes up, that is all just a false front for her to selfishly escape. Again, I don't think it's for Frank or the kids or the family as a whole, I think it's for her. The only time April shows affection for Frank is when she thinks they are moving to Paris (that's why she gave him that birthday surprise, to butter him up for the Paris bomb she was about to drop). Remove that, and she's a witch again.

In my fantasy "what if" world, had the Wheelers moved to Paris, I have little doubt that April would have left Frank with the kids... just as she did (was hoping for?) at the true end of their story.

Fox said...

And on the "what is Manhattan about?" or "what is Revolutionary Road about?" front...

I'm not taking a stance either way, but is it necessary that a movie only be about one thing?

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm not taking a stance either way, but is it necessary that a movie only be about one thing?

No. But I see it's starting to sound that way. And that's the main thing I'm regretting about the point I was trying to make earlier. We've drifted farther way from the original point.

Jason Bellamy said...

I don't know why you're still debating the "suburbia" angle with me.

I'm not. I was arguing against the suburbia stance. You then debated points I made along the way. I debated those back. I mentioned the suburbia thing again to express why I brought up the points in the first place. I know you're not making the "it's about suburbia" argument.

Jason Bellamy said...

April has given by the time we see her in the play. In the car ride home she is already done with it. Frank (AGAIN!) reaches out to her and she just bitch slaps him.

OK. We're not going to agree here. Yes, if you see April as pulling back and Frank constantly reaching out, well, you do. I don't think the opening scene is flattering to either of them. And I think in the later scenes that Frank only reaches out after he's fucked up, and that he does so out of fear. But, hey, at this point we just see the movie two different ways. I'm not defending April. Not at all. I'm just debating the idea that Frank is somehow more committed than she is. I don't see it.

OK. Good discussion all. Alas, I'm off the Web until tomorrow.

Pat said...

Jason -

I just want to say that, despite the intensity of the back-and-forth here, it is actually great to debate with you. You're an intelligent, thougtful and persauasive write, and I need to spend more time over at The Cooler to get more of your perspective. Thanks.

Fox said...

...and I need to spend more time over at The Cooler to get more of your perspective.

Oh, great! Steal my readers why don't you, Jason??? :)

But on the real, yes, Pat, do go over there. It's one of my favorite blogs. (Does a blogger necessarily need to have one favorite blog???) :)

Marilyn said...

Yes, you do, Fox. It's mine.

Fox said...

Marilyn-

Well YOU know that and I know that, but none of the other guys and gals do.

(But since this thread is probably dead by now, I feel comfortable saying that in public.)

MovieMan0283 said...

Wow, great discussion here. I haven't seen the film yet but your readers have inadvertently convinced me to read the novel first, a habit I usually try to do, at least when the adaptee is considered a classic. Hopefully I can get to it before the film leaves theaters.

I've felt - ever since my first time seeing the trailer or, actually, just hearing about the movie - that this film is going to annoy me a lot. Yet I have a weird compulsion to see it, perhaps because the themes fascinate me and I'd rather be annoyed by a movie than feel nothing at all.

But RR seems to be inspiring quite a bit of indignation from all quarters - it's coming to seem as if it stands for something in contemporary cinema which filmgoers are just beginning to shrug off...

MovieMan0283 said...

By the way, I was going to say that one of the reasons I love reading this blog is your the closest thing the film blogosphere has to a conservative (not including Dirty Harry whose blog leads with its political orientation). Then I saw your links and realized you actually ARE a conservative (or so it would seem). So, with slight revision, the thought stands (though, even as a conservative, don't you find The Corner just a tad embarassing?)

Fox said...

MovieMan-

Thanks! Yeah, I wouldn't feel comfortable giving myself one label or another, and I know that's kind of a cop out, but if pinned down I would place myself somewhere in the right-leaning/libertarian area of the political spectrum.

I really have a veering off point with conservatives when it comes to social conservatism. Kathryn Lopez at The Corner is an example of something I find "a tad embarrassing" b/c all she wants to talk about is abortion and adult stem cells. I'm not saying people shouldn't have those discussions, I just don't really care about those topics. I think the Terri Schiavo episode, and the political circus that surrounded it, was modern social conservatism at its worst.

To be honest with you, and for quite some time, I've become pretty disgusted with almost everyone in Washington. For the election, I couldn't find it in my heart to vote for either Obama or McCain... I wrote in "none of the above".

And lately I've heard some radio hosts cheer Republican members of Congress for voting against the Stimulus Bill, while these were the same Republicans that supported Bush's TARP Bill a few months ago. On the flipside, Democrats that used to chide the Bush admin. for their military aggression are now turning a blind eye to reports of drone bombing missions in Pakistan. They all just wanna keep their jobs and it's really, really gross the games they all play in order to keep them.

As for The Corner, I don't find it embarrassing. I disagree with some of the opinions on there, but I think the format is excellent and it's a great way to watch some politios debating current issues (issues that may fly under the radar of mainstream news sources). I really enjoy Mark Steyn, Victor Davis Hanson, Jonah Goldberg, Jim Manzi, and a few others. Also, they have great links.

Mostly, I like political sites that 1.) have civil, respectful debates, and 2.) act as hubs to other interesting information/sites. And, to be honest, I find a lot of the most popular liberal sites like Daily Kos, AMERICAblog, Firedoglake, and others, to be shrill and noisy. I still try to keep up with them, though, b/c I like to hear as much of both opinions as I can. In fact, I've found that The Atlantic "Voices" section has the best "both sides" layout of bloggers... all intelligent and rarely hysterical, though Andrew Sullivan can sometimes seem a bit off his head. Also, I think Bloggingheads is just great for civil, two-sided debtaes. I freakin' love that site. So much more informative than any cable news channel.

Wow. So that was long, but fun to talk about for a change.

little miss said...

Hi all, have just read through your long discussion with much interest. I saw the film yesterday and have never read the book, and it haunts me.............depite wether you liked the movie or hated it, it obviously has also affected all of you as well to be talking so passionately about it.

I guess I have taken on a different perspective to what has been said, I think ?

I felt confused at the end of the movie as I didnt know who to blame, him or her, then I thought well why does it have to be one persons fault.
they both did wrong in that she shut him out and he slept around, but I dont think thats what the movies about.

April is desperate, I think the movie is about how they both deal with that.
I am not saying she has a right to feel desperate, she just does.

every argument we have in life boils down to the fact we feel justified in our own feelings, I felt she new that she was making things hard for him and was sad about it, even though she never says it, she still felt it.

I think she was overwhelmed with her desperation so much that she was irrational but I also felt that he handled her emotions in a selfish way and made it worse.

telling her she should have gotten rid of the baby when she was going to after making her feel guilty for thinking it in the first place is contraditory, she was not in a place where she could understand it was just anger, she was irrational.it pushed her over the edge.


having been in this place myself I related to her and I guess thats why I saw that he was not helping her in the way she needed. if he truly loved her he would have taken the time to understand her and support her, he didnt.

so the movie for me breaks down to the fact they married on a whim and were unhappy, like a lot of other people including the neighbours etc, but the story is about how they handled it and depending on where you are in your life it will reflect differently on everyone.

I liked it very much just for mking me think.

Anonymous said...

Fox, you're obtuse!

ray said...

Thoughtful review. I just saw it on teevee so only got a quick impression, but reminded me of Rosemary's Baby and also Exorcist. It's a 'horror story' that truly is horrible because very real. The novel, remember, foreshadows the 'revolutionary road' of post sixties, feminist America, with it's fifty million abortions and counting, and its landscape of destroyed families.

Rather Stephen King-ish, this is an occult film documenting a 'cursed house' but more pointedly, the machinations of a witch (Mrs. Givings) as she lures 'tenants' into the place, only to poison them in various ways... in this case, with her loonybin demonboy John. The closing scene with the Givings' seals the deal. The old man tunes her out but already she's scheming for her next Special victim-couple. Both the child and the mother become blood-sacrifices; and it is Mrs. Givings, and not the selfish, narcissistic proto-feminist April, who was the consummate actress all along. Indeed, Mrs. Givings' performance is convincing April to invite John into her house was the show stopper.

IOW burn the witch. Cheers.