Revolutionary Road (2008): Sam Mendes Flawed Dissection of Suburban Life, Starring DiCaprio and Kate Winslet

A companion piece to the Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” the 1999 feature debut of British director Sam Mendes, “Revolutionary Road,” another biting (but decidedly not comedic) dissection of American suburban life, is beautifully acted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in tough, demanding roles, but the film as a whole leaves much to be desired.
Grade: B-

After four pictures, it’s safe to say that Mendes is still very much a filmmaker who draws on his theatrical origins. Like “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition,” “Revolutionary Road” is technically well-crafted, but the movie is too detached and studied, particularly in its first, slow half, which lacks narrative flow and suffers from deliberate pacing. And though the movie improves considerably in its second, more emotional and melodramatic part, “Revolutionary Road” takes too long a time to become dramatically engaging; you can put your finger on the actual moment that changes the tone and rhythm of the film.

Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe deserve credit for maintaining the uncompromisingly bleak tone of Richard Yates’s novel, published in 1961, and held in great critical regard by many prominent writers (see essay on the book’s status).

As a 2008 picture, however, “Revolutionary Road” is bound to suffer from inevitable comparisons ro AMC’s landmark series, “Mad Men,” which is more or les set at the same time, and with Mendes’ own “American Beauty,” whose satirical, black comedy tone made it more entertaining and easier to take. As an anatomy of the unbearable pressures of a conformist, materialistic society, based on rigid sexual segregation, the film also resembles thematically Todd Haynes’ 2004 “Far From Heaven,” whose text is set at the same time, and Todd Field’s 2006 “Little Children,” whose story is more contemporary. On many levels, both Haynes and Field’s films are superior to Mendes’ suburban exploration.

Commercially speaking, Paramount Vantage faces a tough challenge in putting over this relentlessly downbeat picture during the holiday season. The two central performers, DiCaprio and Winslet, reunited for the first time after their successful appearance in the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” should receive critical kudos and Oscar nominations. However, it’s uncertain whether “Revolutionary Road” will be deemed worthy by the Academy voters in the Best Picture and Director categories. If my reading is valid, the movie will divide film critics, as most of Mendes pictures have done before, including his last effort, “Jarhead,” in 2005.

Richard Yates’ emotionally powerful novel, “Revolutionary Road,” shook the literary world in 1961 in its fierce observations and candid language, which were much ahead of their times. The story’s main characters, a couple of newly married young lovers with grand dreams, Frank and April Wheeler, became indelibly real, and also emblematic of a whole generation of readers.

As a brutal dissection of marriage, “Revolutionary Road” is right up there with Mike Nichols’ 1966 screen version of Edward Albee’s award-winning play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” Though the narrative is set in the late 1950s, at the height of moral conformity and consumerist suburbanism as the “Ideal American Way of Life,” the poignancy of the film’s issues and conflicts between the spouses remain relevant to today’s variety of unions, both heterosexual and homosexual (the very notions of a dual-career union and expectations to be fulfilled within that union are involved).

I expect feminist scholars and viewers to have a field day with an anatomy of marriage, written a man but centering on the woman, struggling with the very definition of being a loyal wife, though it must be said, that one of the film’s major faults is its total neglect of the children, who appear in few scenes but do not feature prominently in the narrative at all, unlike their crucial parts in TV’s superlative series “Mad Men” or “Little Children.”

That said, the issues of the book (and film) are broader than marriage, dealing with the very nature of companionships and relationships, the roles of men and women in modern society, the very possibility of reconciling the realities of families and jobs that come with young middle-age and the idealism and yearning associated with youth. In many ways, “Revolutionary Road” could be seen as a coming-of-age saga, except that the protags are not teenagers but thirtysomething.

The catalyst of the film’s events and drama is one major decision. When Frank and April hatch a plan to reinvigorate their marriage by moving to the exhilarating freedom of Paris, it sparks a conflict between her dreams and his fear of failing to make them come true. Perceived as a threat to w whole philosophy of life, their decision also throws off-balance their friends and neighbors.

The linchpin of the story is the Wheelers’ belief that they’re special, or different, destined for something grander than the mundane life they now lead. The ensuing narrative shows how social circumstances and personality traits shatter that illusion. Much as they believe they are above and beyond the influence of the surrounding consumerist culture, Wheelers become increasingly aware that have fallen prey to it, as much as their crass friends and bourgeois neighbors.

At first, what makes Frank and April’s romance so exciting is the presumption that they are not like every around them. Then, one bright day, April comes to Frank and says, “We are becoming like everyone else so let’s do something to change our trapped lives. Let’s move to Paris, and save ourselves.” But, alas, their great escape never happens, and Paris remains an unrealized fantasy because April becomes inadvertently pregnant (for the third time), which prompts Frank to lose his nerve, causing the whole dynamic between them to shift. In this picture, Paris is not just a particular, realistic place, but also more of a symbol of courage, of the potentially grand ideas we all dream about as youngsters.

With the assistance of his cinematographer and production designer, Mendes evocatively captures the morals, mores, and fashions of the 1950s. Just like the protags of TV’s “Mad Men,” Frank lives in a world of New York businessmen in gray flannel suits taking martini lunches and flirting with secretaries (on his 30th birthday!). With the exception of Kathy Bates, who’s too broad and is doing a variation of a role she has played one too many times (including “About Schmidt”), the entire ensemble shines. Showing greater maturity than in former roles, DiCaprio brings the multi-facets of his part to life, the hypocritical nature of a quintessential 1950s man, driven by responsibilities to support his family and yet ambitious and ruthless enough to pursue his own career and engage in illicit affairs without ever giving an account to himself.

But it’s Kate Winslet, Mendes’ real-life wife, with whom he collaborates on screen for the first time, who carries the film’s heavy weight, and ultimately becomes its tragic victim, a woman who refuses and/or is unable to conform to the rigid mores of the 1950s, specifically the societal definition of being a housewife. Winslet, who had excelled as a housewife in Todd Field’s similarly themed but better film “Little Children,” has a tougher and richer r
ole than DiCaprio for she suffers from the prevalent double standards and demonstrates the fine line between being a loyal, submissive wife (who makes breakfast for her hubby and asks questions about his work) and being mad, both literally and figuratively.

But the film’s standout performance belongs to Michael Shannon, as the clinically insane son of the local realtor and socialite Helen Givings (Kathy Bates). As the piece’s voice of reason and truth, who sees through the Wheelers and is unafraid to expose his unfiltered thoughts in public, Shannon is always riveting to watch in a part that is at once scary and entertaining, and with some justice would grant him a spot on the Supporting Actor Oscar race.


Frank Wheeler – Leonardo DiCaprio
April Wheeler – Kate Winslet
Helen Givings – Kathy Bates
John Givings – Michael Shannon
Milly Campbell – Kathryn Hahn
Shep Campbell – David Harbour
Jack Ordway – Dylan Baker
Howard Givings – Richard Easton
Maureen Grube – Zoe Kazan
Bart Pollock – Jay O. Sanders
Ed Small – Max Casella


A Paramount Vantage release of a DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Vantage presentation of an Evamere Entertainment, BBC Films, Neal Street production, in association with Goldcrest Pictures. Produced by John N. Hart, Scott Rudin, Sam Mendes, Bobby Cohen. Executive producers: Marion Rosenberg, David M. Thompson, Henry Fernaine. Co-producers, Ann Ruark, Gina Amoroso. Co-executive producers: Peter Kalmbach, Nina Wolarsky, Pippa Harris. Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay: Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates. Camera: Roger Deakins. Editor: Tariq Anwar. Music: Thomas Newman; music supervisor, Randall Poster. Production designer: Kristi Zea. Art director: Terri Carriker-Thayer; set decorator, Debra Schutt. Costume designer: Albert Wolsky. Sound: Danny Michael; supervising sound editor, Warren Shaw; re-recording mixers, Scott Milan, David Parker. Assistant director: Joseph Reidy. Casting: Ellen Lewis, Debra Zane.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 118 Minutes.