Stifling 1950s story fails to ignite

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, December 31, 2008 2:48pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Richard Yates’ 1961 novel “Revolutionary Road” is a great American novel, an incredibly sad portrait of a marriage in the suburbs and in the depths.

There’s nothing about the book that suggests a movie, although enough people have loved it over the years that various stabs have been taken for film. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) made it happen, reuniting the “Titanic” lovebirds, Kate Winslet (Mrs. Mendes in real life) and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The setting is 1950s suburbia, that by-now familiar location of angst and frustration. Thirtyish Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) works at a nothing job for a corporation, wondering where his youthful energy went.

His wife, April (Winslet), tends their children and their tidy house. We are meant to see their home on a cul-de-sac as a dead end in every sense, although the movie’s stately, hushed style seems to smother these characters as much as the suburbs do.

A spark enters their lives when April and Frank suddenly decide to move to Paris and distinguish themselves from the other suckers. They tell friends, including the next-door neighbor (David Harbour) who’s obviously infatuated with April, but the move never seems quite tangible.

Other incidents that break up the quiet misery of the Wheelers’ lives include Frank’s affair with a secretary (Zoe Kazan) and a couple of visits with the mentally unstable adult son (Michael Shannon) of their nosy Realtor (Kathy Bates).

The granite-faced Shannon (from “Bug) operates in the film — a bit too literally — as the truth-teller, a guy whose outcast status allows him to point out the deep sense of denial at work in the cul-de-sac.

Mendes and his production team create the Eisenhower era beautifully, with a parade of cigarettes and cocktails and Mid-Century Modern furniture. But there isn’t much pleasure taken in any of it.

I admired quite a bit about the movie, but at some point it becomes clear Mendes hasn’t cracked it. His approach is psychological, and rife with shouting matches between husband and wife, but that’s only part of the picture.

Winslet might be too intelligent for April, who comes off as less blame-worthy than in the book. And DiCaprio’s Frank is far less complex and tragic than in the book; here he’s just a ratfink.

DiCaprio, who is sustaining the longest adolescence in movie history, still sounds shrill and still looks as though he hasn’t grown into himself. I can’t tell whether some of his inauthentic line readings come from an actor’s calculated attempt to portray a dishonest character (in which case it’s a brilliant performance), or from DiCaprio’s inability to ring true.

Both actors, a world away from “Titanic,” give their all. But it’s not enough to make the novel’s world come to life, and if anything this movie re-affirms that some books aren’t meant to end up on movie screens.

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