A Review of Sam Mendes’ Adaptation of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”

Leo tells Kate, No, Honey, you cant see Europe from the shores of Long Island.

Leo tells Kate, "No, Honey, you can't see Europe from the shores of Connecticut."

They’ll Never Have Paris, 3 January 2009
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In one of the classiest pieces of stunt casting in recent years, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes reunites his wife, Kate Winslet, with her Titanic shipmate Leonardo DiCaprio to play the Wheelers in his screen adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road.  It adds an appealing accessibility to an otherwise depressing tale.

The film opens boldly enough, spending just a few fleeting moments showing us how the Wheelers met before throwing us head first into their disaster of a marriage. April (Winslet) always had dreams of being an actress and Frank (DiCaprio), well, Frank always had some vague idea of living in Paris. The film chronicles their sad story. The Wheelers are meant to represent the post WWII generation who during the prosperous 1950’s created suffocating lives due to dreams deferred in exchange for chasing the so-called “American Dream” that they never really believed in. Everyone else in the film is in some sort of love with the Wheelers and their picture perfect lives, but the Wheelers hate themselves, each other, their neighbors, and what they have become. It’s a damning little portrait that has been painted before in literature and film, but never quite so acutely.

I haven’t read Richard Yates’ novel, but I am currently reading his collection of short stories which address many of the same themes and bear his hallmarks present here: cutting dialog, keen insights into the psyche of his sometimes despicable or just plain sad characters, and obsessive attention to details of time and place. In terms of the tone of Yates’ writing, Mendes is successful in his translation. However, that tone that worked so well on the page doesn’t always work on screen. We’re never sure if we’re meant to sympathize with the Wheelers or if Mendes wants us to view it as a dark comedy where we watch in sick delight as the popular kids who always thought they were more interesting than everyone else grow up to be horribly dysfunctional and cripplingly normal. Much of the audience I saw the film with laughed to break the tension during some of Mendes’ trademarked “uncomfortable dinner table scenes”, but we all watched in horror as the film spun out of control into its downer of a climax.

Ultimately one sits through a film like this for the acting, and it doesn’t disappoint on that level. Taking a line from the film, DiCaprio is a “cracker jack” playing for the first time a husband, a father, and a hopelessly average Joe. Winslet is on more familiar ground, but never has she been given so much range to roam, and her director husband lets her run wild and free. It’s a neurotic, brave, and sometimes questionable performance that is a rare sight to behold. At times it seems as if Mendes is directing a stage-play rather than a film, and he lets the whole cast scream and holler against his finely detailed period backdrops, but it’s still entertaining for those who enjoy watching polished professionals (including Michael Shannon portraying a man on leave from an insane asylum in a perfect pitch) stretch their acting muscles.

One watches the grim dissolution of this marriage wondering if there isn’t some subtext to explore with regards to Winslet and Mendes’ own seemingly perfect Hollywood marriage. And as unlikable as they are at times, and no matter how much we would rather laugh at then relate to another human being, one can’t escape the sickening feeling that there might be a little bit of Frank and April Wheeler in all of us.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Check out my reviews of Sam Mendes’ previous films:

American Beauty (1999)

Road to Perdition (2002)

Jarhead (2005)

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2 comments on “A Review of Sam Mendes’ Adaptation of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”

  1. Demob Happy says:

    Nice post David. I haven’t seen the film yet but concerning your question about “if we’re meant to sympathize with the Wheelers” it seems Mendes must have been quite faithful to Yates’ novel, which is pretty misanthropic in spirit. None of the characters finish the novel in a favourable light – Yates is ruthless in exposing them for their selfishness and inadequacy.

    I like your point that “Everyone else in the film is in some sort of love with the Wheelers … but the Wheelers hate themselves, each other, their neighbors, and what they have become”. This idea that the Wheelers are living behind a mask which seduces others but that is deeply fraudulent is central to the novel but I didn’t pick it up in my original review. I look forward to watching the film and seeing if Mendes has cranked this aspect up a bit.

    James, I think that may have been the main drive of the film: the idea that you can be “in love” with the idea of someone or something and that person is full of nothing but hate and bitterness for you and the things and ideas are just meaningless and empty…quite the damning commentary on 1950’s culture. –DHS

  2. Dave says:

    I promised months ago to stop by here and comment on this film after watching, intending to see it those months back. I obviously didn’t do it then, as I just watched the movie for the first time this week. But I’m a man of my word, so I am here! 🙂

    My rating on this one is also 8/10 and I think that we read the film similarly. I also came away unsure of how I was supposed to feel toward April. I understand the unhappiness in the marriage and life, but I really disliked her. On the other hand, Frank was at least a likable guy. I don’t blame someone like April for doing anything possible to be happy, but it felt like my worst nightmare of marriage where I the husband (in this case being Frank) am blamed or cited as the cause for everything to ever go wrong! I have a feeling the fact that I had such a strong reaction is precisely the point and emphasizes that the movie is a success for me.

    A depressing one to be sure, except for the outstanding soundtrack that always seems to be going at low volume in the background.

    Hey, Dave, glad you made it. This surely was a depressing film, but also very thought provoking and well acted. Now that I have some distance from first view, I might go back and read the book to compare. –DHS

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