Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Revolutionary Road, a Painfully Intimate Journey

Revolutionary Road, a Painfully Intimate Journey
by David Giarrizzo

Genre: Drama
Running Time: 119 min.
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Justin Haythe, Richard Yates
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet,
Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn,
David Harbour, Kathy Bates, Ty Simpkins,
Zoe Kazan, David Harbour, Ryan Simpkins

Mendes triumpant advent to his arduous style in “Revolutionary Road,”is an extraordinary motion picture that assimilates enthralling affective discharge and riveting aversion, using two of the most talented and captivating stars of today to bring to the screen a masterwork of domestic detachment. Directed with illustrious adeptness by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), who lures us into in the daunting Yates-faithful script by Justin Haythe, the film is a painfully intimate journey, but well worth the ticket. Camera genius Roger Deakins lights the "hopeless emptiness" on view with an aberrant allure. Like American Beauty, the grand zoom outs from uncomfortably intimate close-ups, and vice-versa, are a dead givaway. I went into the theater not knowing who the director was. By the time the opning credits rolled, I knew. One of my favorite scenes is shot at Grand Central Station amongst a sea of suits and fedoras, all walking in slow motion with dead facial expressions. It seemed like that scene was an homage to Ron Fricke of Godfrey Reggios' Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

All the actors astonish also. DiCaprio is in his zone, peeling away layers of immersed emotion to a crestfallen man. And the splendiferous Winslet defines what makes a great actress, scintillating commitment to a character and the magnitude to make every nuance felt. Winslet's last scene, as April prepares breakfast for a husband who can't see the torment behind her smile, is emotionally devastating. This movie takes a piece out of you and spits it out. Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, as her husband, Frank, could not be better in the roles of young marrieds who (shades of Mad Men) move from Manhattan to the suburbs, promising themselves it's all just temporary. To hear Kate Winslet, as April Wheeler, express her desire "to be wonderful in the world" is to be reminded of how individualism is like living free, at best a concept. She wants so desperately to be special, as if to feel unimportant if established in society. Hand over an award for Michael Shannon as John Givings, the institutionalized son of a gossipy realtor (the awe-inspiring Kathy Bates). Home on a visit, John splits no hairs with the truth " You say existence here is hopelessly pointless. I'm impressed. Most people get the emptiness, but few understand the hopeless part." Playing the role like a heat-seeking missile that targets hypocrisy, the eruptive Shannon blows the roof off the theater. Add two kids, thwarted ambitions, adultery — Frank with a secretary (a vivid Zoe Kazan) and April with a married neighbor (the excellent David Harbour) — plus April's unwanted third pregnancy.

Trying their best to conform to mid-1950’s standards of social grace and marital comfort, Frank and April Wheeler are coming apart at the seams. With years of growing unrest at home sending April into depression and Frank to infidelity, the couple decides to shake up their life by moving to Paris, to start over with renewed vows of devotion. April hatches a very feasible plan in which the couple could be happy once again and quickly Frank jumps on-board. But as is the case with any dream that goes against the grain of what society expects, the longer the couple waits to hatch their plan, the more it falls apart. Think about that great movie or screenplay idea you had and how excited you were by the prospect. Then think about how day by day, hour by hour “real life” or friends calling you crazy got in the way and quashed out your spark. If you know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand all too well what’s happening as the wheels fall of for the aptly named Wheelers. Spreading the news to friends (David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn) and acquaintances (Kathy Bates), the couple perceives the hesitation of congratulations, amplified when Frank receives a promotion at work and April discovers she’s pregnant. With the window of opportunity closing on their European dream, Frank and April turn on each other, powerless to confront and amend their dissatisfaction and fear.

The true test of “Road” is the range of melodrama that exists within. Adapted from the beloved novel by Richard Yates and knowing Mendes’s predilection for polished hysteria, it makes perfect sense for the film to dwell on the bubbling pot of emotive poison spattering Frank and April, with an eye toward grandstanding professions of marital bile. However, “Road” never goes to a shrill place of obviousness, nor doesn’t it attempt to spell out the misery with wild performances and on-the-nose screenwriting. Instead the film is a gorgeously mounted voyage of discomfort, observing the widening dividing line between two people who’ve lost interest in open communication, forced to preserve a decomposing lifestyle and status in the name of matrimony.

The cruelty which pulls Frank and Alice apart is where “Road” hits the hardest. Playing with steadfast gender roles and suburban complacency, “Road” elects the slow burn route, generously exhibiting the erosion of spirit within the two lead characters. Frank and April were brought together by cocktail-hour flirtation and broken promises and now, left to deal with the mess of life, they’ve declared war, using April’s pregnancy and Frank’s possible new position at a company he loathes as ammo to unleash horrible diatribes against each other. “Road” is teeming with blistering argumentative situations, but Mendes doesn’t allow the unhappiness to blur into white noise. Instead “Road” grips tighter with every row, deepening the characterization as Frank and April confront their boundaries for the first time, coming to the realization that kids, a house in a WASPy neighborhood, and predetermined domestic roles have transformed them into rats trapped inside a cage.

As “Road” tightens with anguish, lies, and acts of emotional revenge, Mendes positions the film beautifully to best consume the painful road ahead for Frank and April. With a cast this tight, production credits that evoke a 50’s mood with both obvious and subtle characteristics (think cigarettes and internalization aplenty with copius martinis), and a directorial job that can manage the displeasure of marital disagreement and loathing without submerging the intended pitch of sorrow, “Revolutionary Road” reaches a summit of dramatic gratification and pure emotional mutilation that’s absolutely riveting.

Watch the trailer:

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