Lives of quiet desperation.

Last night’s film viewing:

Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, and based on the classic novel by Richard Yates.

It’s the story of a couple, Frank and April Wheeler, living in suburban Connecticut in the passionless conformity of the 50s, trying to live lives of purpose and excitement, and trying to realize their dreams. But, as the description on the back of the DVD box puts, they’re willing to break away from the ordinary – but can they do it without breaking apart?

There’s not a lot you can say about Kate Winslet in this film. She’s great. Even if the film wasn’t solid, if the story and the director weren’t good, even if she wasn’t getting good return from her co-stars, she could still carry this film on her back. Isn’t that the same with every film she does?

But it’s different here, in a way, because while a great deal of the story belongs to DiCaprio’s character, Frank, primarily because of Yates’ way of telling a story, you get the sense that this wold can only exist because of the quality of acting from an actor like Kate Winslet. Yates is so much more comfortable with the male perspective (from what I understand, in the book, even some of the flashbacks of Winslet’s character are told from the perspective of Frank’s remembering her telling him about them), but still it’s April’s world. And it’s fading away as she fades away.

I knew Don Draper, and you, sir, are no Don Draper.

DiCaprio is solid too, don’t get me wrong, but that’s all he is. To me, that’s usually all he is. His strength is just that he’s never bad. He’s always angry, but not in any exceptional way. He’s a little boy (from Growing Pains, ironically enough) all grown up and trying to seem that way. He gives a nice base for Winslet to act against and react to.

There’s a nice bit towards the beginning of the film where April is acting in a community theater production, and it’s obviously a failure. April, who dreamt of being an actress, whether she’s personally bad in the production or the production itself is just bad, feels like a failure. Frank comes to console her in her dressing room backstage after the play is over and sees her costume hung over a dressing screen. He comes up to her and starts to tell her she was great, to say the nice things she needs to hear. Then the bathroom door behind him opens and she comes out from there, having never been behind the screen and what he actually says to her as opposed to what he had originally intended to say to her is dramatically different, if you’ll pardon the pun. This scene is a perfect metaphor for the rest of the story.

It fascinates me that you have a British actor, a British lead actress, a British screenwriter (actually, an American who’s worked extensively in England), and a great British cinematographer bringing this story to us. It’s interesting to see the outsider perspective as it peels back a bit of American life and shows it to us. But this seems to basically be Mendes’ forte in film, doesn’t it? Primarily with suburban family life, especially American Beauty, this, and the upcoming Away We Go, but with other aspects of our culture, primarily our main exports, war, with Jarhead, and crime, with Road To Perdition.

Watching Revolutionary Road, a lot of other things flashed into my mind, things like Mad Men and especially the film version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (I loved the play, but the film unnerved me greatly for personal reasons). I remember reading an interview with Matthew Weiner where he mentioned that had Sam Mendes’ film version of Revolutionary Road come out a few years earlier, he’d never done Mad Men, even though he’d apparently been sitting on the pilot script since The Sopranos. Anyway, a lot of things flash through my mind when watching this film, just small things.

Also, for example, there’s a sex scene in a car that reminded me for a lot of reasons of a similar scene from Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, based on a book by Rick Moody. And I have to wonder how many American novelists, Rick Moody included, are so massively indebted to Richard Yates.

Of course, other than the period and the bleakness of life that was the 50s and 60s, there’s not much comparison between this film and Mad Men. In Mad Men, Don Draper does horrible, despicable things, but he’s amazing at them. He’s well written and played with an intoxicating charm by Jon Hamm, leading you to almost root for him to keep fucking with anyone he feels he needs to. DiCaprio’s character wishes he was Don Draper, and Winslet’s character will never be satisfied being a Betty Draper. She’s going to break out of her prison one way or another and live, dammit, and she’s going to drag her husband kicking and screaming out of his too, if she has to. Of course, escaping one prison might just lead you into another.

And special mention should be made to what Michael Shannon does with two scenes as the disturbed son of Kathy Bates’ realtor character. To say that his character manages to unsettle is an understatement, but what’s so nice is that he does it in such a human way, a real way, even while making me think of him as the Christopher Nolan Joker of suburbia here.

Someone online yesterday asked me if I would recommend this fim and it’s a tough question. The easy answer is yes. Yes, I would. It’s not what I would call a strong slam dunk, it’s not what I’d usually suggest for Saturday night viewing. Watching this, I really lament the fact that I’ve never read the book. I’ve had many opportunities too and never seized them. I actually have two copies of it (one bought, one given to me), and watching this movie, which of course stands strong for me now, I do feel feel like I’m missing out on something by not having already experienced the novel.

But the thing about this movie is… it’s theatre. You feel not so much like you’re sitting in the audience watching two solid actors (and Kate Winslet is always more than just solid) brutally try to survive in this story, but that you’re sitting on the stage with them at certain moments. You’re not going to get the spit on you from their screams, but you will feel that pit of despair in you during certain moments when it seems like it’s leaking out of them.

It’s almost a little ironic, a little too on the nose, I should say here, that a film called Revolutionary Road, is like watching two people in a car crash, from start to finish.

“If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

-Richard Yates

I was happy to be reminded recently that Elaine’s dad in Seinfeld, played by Lawrence Tierney, was based on Richard Yates, since Larry David had dated Yates’ daughter back in the day. And the next Tao Lin novel is titled Richard Yates, both of which Molly Lambert talked about more in a great This Recording post a while back.

I want to leave this review with something I especially love, which is a line Kate Winslet’s says about 2/3 of the way through, one of the truest, simplest pieces of dialogue I’ve heard in a film in a long time: “You’re just a boy who made me laugh at a party once.”

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3 responses to “Lives of quiet desperation.

  1. i know what you mean about kind of liking the movie and wanting to recommend it, but not being totally sure. i left this moving feeling empty and not sure if i really liked it, but knowing i didn’t dislike it at all. it’s disturbing because it’s so true, even now roughly 50 years after that movie is even dated. and yes, it’s funny that a british guy can direct a movie about american families so well.

  2. I’d read some of Yates’ stories before and enjoyed them, but I get the impression that I’d probably like the novel much better than the movie in this case.

    Or, in any case usually, right?

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