© 2009 Ray Wong
There are dysfunctional marriages and families, and then there are the truly dysfunctional. But when you frame that dysfunction in the Eisenhower era, you get a strangely surreal look at the truth behind the "American Dream."
Frank (Leopardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) are a white-bread American couple living the American dream with a beautiful suburban house, white picket fences, a nice car, and two beautiful young kids. In fact, like everyone around them, including neighbors the Campbells (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn) and real estate agent/friend Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), they're practically the poster children of that dream. However, the fact is Frank and April are insanely unhappy.
Frank is in a dead-end, meaningless corporate job in the city as a pencil pusher. As a dutiful wife and mother, April is an aspiring actress who has confined by those picket fences that Frank helps paid for with his dull job. They both bought into this suburban lifestyle and now find themselves trapped. Then one day, April has an epiphany: why not sell everything they own and move to Paris? She can make plenty of money doing secretarial work for the government while Frank has all the time he needs to "find himself." The idea is so appealing that Frank agrees to go along with it. Suddenly, happiness and purpose are injected into their lives once again and they even enjoy watching the jealousy on their friends' faces.
Then Frank gets a promotion. When he's just about to give up his so-called career, he (and his company) finds that he's actually very good at what he does. The new-found appreciation, accomplishment and, not to mention, big money rattle their plans. Frank's change of heart plunges April back into depression. And a devastating news makes her realize perhaps her marriage is a sham to being with.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond) is a good actor, but often I feel that he's limited by his looks and his range. It's not to say he's not doing great work, here. Yet he's unconvincing to me -- the role could have been played by other actors much more suitable. DiCaprio tends to shine in youthful roles that call for some mischiefs (Catch Me if You Can, Titanic). To me, he seems a little lost in the serious, extremely grown-up role.
Kate Winslet (The Reader) is more natural in the role of an unhappy housewife. Her range is also very good, going from an amiable girl-next-door to a scream queen on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She shows enough vulnerability and sensitivity to make us sympathize with her, even when we may not completely identify with her and her choices. She does great work here, although I still prefer her in The Reader.
The supporting cast is very good, even though the film focuses primarily on DiCaprio and Winslet. Michael Shannon (World Trade Center) is particularly riveting as John Givings, a man with a mental illness. Ironically, his character serves as the only person who dare to speak the truth. Kathy Bates (The Day the World Stood Still) is, as usual, remarkable as Helen Givings, the chatty agent who carries the shame and guilt for her son. Richard Easton (Finding Forrester) is quietly solid as her husband. Zoe Kazan (August) is excellent as a coworker with a crush on Frank. David Harbour (Quantum of Solace) is subtle as the neighbor who has a crush on April, and Kathryn Hahn (Step Brothers) is very good as his bubbly wife.
Adapted from Richard Yates' novel by Justin Haythe (The Clearing), the script is sparse with plot but ripe with tension. The dialogue is sharp and to the point, giving insight into the characters' inner thoughts and desires and conflicts and regrets without stating the obvious. If there's a flaw in Haythe's script, it's that it's so rich in subtext that it takes an effort to understand everything. However, the paths the characters take and their behaviors do not come across as random or inconsistent. Haythe is able to help us understand the complexity of their relationships, the web they've weaved and the subsequent, slow but painful descent.
Taking place through the course of one summer, the story focuses on Frank and April, but is actually a reflection of the social climate of America in the 50s, when middle-class Americans flocked to the suburbs to be "just like everyone else." It's really a social commentary of society then (and now): the office drones, the lovely facade everyone is putting up so they're not "different." As a story about two people in love, however, the writing feels a bit cold. Not to mention by focusing it on Frank and April, the rest of their lives (including their two children, who almost play no part in the film) becomes secondary, as if these two people were completely defined by their woeful existences in the suburbs. I mean, don't they have real friends? Don't they have hobbies and outside interests? I guess it's fascinating for me to take a peek into the lives of the 50s white-bread America, but I can't help but feel left out somehow. Frank and April's cold war is not the only thing that leaves me cold. In fact, most of the characters just aren't every likable -- I don't mind unlikable characters, but give me something to root for. Or I'll have to slap someone on the face soon.
Sam Mandes (Jarhead) is on top of his game, though. The director is always about quality instead of quantity, judging from the four features he's done in his entire career so far. Here, his keen eyes and steady vision help glue the whole thing together. The cinematography, set designs, costume -- every detail of the production takes us back to the 1950s. He also has a talent of letting his actors do their job, helping them bring the characters out without relying too much on dialogue or overt explanations.
The result is a study of relationships and the social construct surrounding those relationships -- the lies, the truths, the constrictions people make on their lives. In a way, we look at these people and find them pathetic -- what triviality! I mean, seriously, just quit your job and move already. Except I forgot it was a different time. On the other hand, I still see so many people living on "Revolutionary Road" now, it's indeed frightening how relevant this story still is.
Let's see how this film do on the road to awards and acclaims.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Richard Easton, Zoe Kazan, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn
Director: Sam Mandes
Writers: Justin Haythe (based on Richard Yates's novel)
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content/nudity
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.6 out of 10