It is fashionable these days to look back upon the '50s and '60s as a time when there was cool fashion and a lot of smoking and martini drinking, covering up for deeply unsettled, Stepford Wives-esque lives of quiet desperation. The AMC show Mad Men revels in this milieu, sometimes to an excessive extent. Were people really this suppressed, oppressed, and unhappy in their cookie-cutter suburban lives? Did Manhattan businessmen really have "swell" afternoon romps with secretaries while their wives baked cakes with the children at home? It's all very convenient and elegant to portray the postwar American ideal as an ill-founded, flashy farce covering up for the ugly truths of life, and it's made Mad Men a pop culture hit. But it's a little too convenient, too expected. And although it has many virtues, Revolutionary Road ultimately comes across as a little bit too cynical for its own good.
The film, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) and based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, drops us into the lives of April and Frank Wheeler, a couple living an idyllic existence in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City in the 1950s. They have two kids, a house with red shutters, and some really nice neighbors. But the predictability of it all bores them, so one day they decide to drop everything and move to Paris "for something different." April will get a job working at the U.S. Embassy, while Frank just writes and reads and thinks about what he wants to do with his life. Their escape plan is soon thwarted, tragically, by their mutual realization that their move to Paris is really just a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. The rest of the film plays out like a slow burn, intricately and painstakingly unraveling the Wheelers' marriage before our eyes.
In many ways, it's American Beauty set four decades earlier. Both films are about marriages that were once loving, once pristine, but are now falling apart. Both films are highly visual, slick masterpieces of technique and photography (Roger Deakins' work here showcases some of the best cinematography of 2008). Both films feature melancholy piano scores by Thomas Newman, oodles of slow zooms, and highly composed mise-en-scene. But while Road does have a bit more subtlety and complexity than Beauty, it has far less empathy and, well, hope. It's a beautiful film, but remarkably bleak.
Much heralded as the first on-screen reunion of "Kate and Leo" since Titanic ten years ago, Revolutionary Road features the pair of actors in considerably weightier, world-weary circumstances than their "I'm the king of the world" antics aboard the ill-fated ship. Like Jack and Rose, April and Frank are star-crossed lovers doomed to an unhappy end. Unlike the former couple, however, the Wheelers hate each other. Or, I should say, the Wheelers sometimes hate each other. Sometimes there is love between them, a little affection and hope (seen largely in flashbacks). But most of the time they are quietly loathing or resenting one another. It's considerably less fun to watch than the "my heart will go on" kitschy romance of Titanic.