Sam Mendes’ American Beauty was one of the best films of 1999 – it captured the banality of the American Dream with an acerbic wit and subtle honesty that made its story worth exploring again and again. With a movie that accomplished it goals so well, one must wonder why Mendes wanted to turn his eye to the mid-1950s world of Revolutionary Road, a story that reveals nothing new in its characters or themes.
Adapted from Richard Yates’ classic 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road follows the doomed marriage of the Wheelers, an American couple that appears perfect to most outsiders. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) has no idea what he’s passionate for, so his life consists of working at a corporation that he despises to feed his kids. His wife April (Kate Winslet) takes the money that he earns to feed those kids. They hate their positions, and they hate each other. To resolve this, the couple formulates plans to move with the kids to Paris – according to Frank, people are “alive” there, and by moving to Paris, the Wheelers can become “alive” too.
Despite its characters’ aspirations, Revolutionary Road never becomes “alive” itself because its story is so depressingly predictable. It’s hard to care for protagonists who seem so one-dimensionally idiotic and transparent. We watch the Wheelers and wonder, “Why the hell don’t they just divorce?” But Justin Haythe’s script is unconcerned with providing these characters with any surprising traits, and the incessant shouting that we are presented with fails to take on any new life as the plot progresses.
That might not be so bad if the filmmaking were incompetent, but Mendes’ claustrophobic, colorful style is compelling, and he handles his actors well. DiCaprio and Winslet, appearing together for the first time since Titanic (possibly implying that this is what would have happened to Jack and Rose if Jack and had lived), do their best with the high-volume dialogue that they’ve been handed. Some effective comic relief is also provided, particularly when John (Michael Shannon), the deranged adult son of the Wheelers’ neighbors, pays the family a visit. His commentary on the “hopeless emptiness” of American life is obvious and even heavy-handed, but that doesn’t subtract the humor.
As it struggles to find an ending (its final moment almost completely missing the mark), it becomes increasingly apparent that Revolutionary Road is more concerned with conveying its message than telling a story. Perhaps this has been executed successfully before, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a worthwhile example. Individual scenes hit the spot, but there’s absolutely nothing new to be discovered in this hodgepodge of a film, leaving it on the opposite end of revolutionary.