by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
The chasm between “should be happy” and actually being happy was explored with smarts and finesse in the 2008 scenes-from-a-marriage drama, “Revolutionary Road.”
What’s on display is the romantic American dream: Boy loves girl. Girl loves him back. Boy and girl marry. Boy and girl have two kids. Boy and girl move to the burbs. Boy and girl should be happy.
But they’re not. They are, in fact, miserable. What to do.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet – reunited for the first time since their historic coupling in 1997‘s “Titanic,” and headed this time for a metaphoric iceberg — are Frank and April Wheeler, increasingly dissatisfied suburban spouses in this sardonically titled work, an under-the-microscope drama about the fragility of the postwar American Dream in Connecticut in the 1950s, when that dream of not only prosperity but contentment could so easily turn into a nightmare.
The straightforward mid-20th-century narrative, a virtual two-hander about suburban angst, focuses on a golden couple with all the trappings of a fulfilled life. Yet the essential emptiness and hopelessness of their suburban existence plagues them.
These two ordinary people yearn to live extraordinary lives. Is it possible? Would moving to Paris help them escape the stranglehold that conformity has on them?
Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead,” “Skyfall”) – a former real-life spouse of Winslet – examines the self-delusions of the main characters, who feel trapped and stifled, as if they had wandered into the wrong neighborhood because of unclear road signs. They couldn’t possibly be in the seeming predicament that they’re in because of their own limitations, could they? Well, could they?
The script by Justin Haythe, based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates (which, reportedly, also influenced television’s “Mad Men”), offers a bit too much in the way of on-the-nose dialogue, as if the film itself were overly aware of its own presumed profundity. But it’s nonetheless the kind of thoughtful screenplay we appreciate as it attempts to explain our lives to us – even when it doesn’t get everything exactly right.
And it says far too much about our lives today for us to dismiss its concerns as those of a no-longer-pertinent period piece.
DiCaprio and Winslet are, not surprisingly, both splendid. He lets us see the yearning underneath the surface charm, and she paints a vivid portrait with tiny little strokes. And, of course, their very involvement gives the film immediate star quality. Not to mention the film’s three Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon as a mentally unstable neighbor who hurls incriminations at them with brutal honesty and frightening ease), Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
There’s nothing feel-good about this outing except the level of its ambition, the quality of its execution, and the impressive number of raw nerves exposed.
A resonant drama about lives of quiet desperation and faded dreams, this “Revolutionary Road” has a few potholes, but it’s paved with admirable artistic intentions.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.