Is it a sign of the times that the love-struck kids from the 90s' biggest blockbuster grew up to become the disillusioned couple at the center of Sam Mendes' would-be revelation of oppressive 1950s' conformity? It would appear so, as "Revolutionary Road" suggests that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's hearts would not have gone on had they survived the sinking of the Titanic and settled into suburban, middle-class living. British director Mendes first dissected the American family 10 years ago in "American Beauty," a much-acclaimed film that in hindsight seems more artificial and simplistic than most thought. While that movie at least contained some hint at redemption, "Revolutionary Road," based on the famous novel by Richard Yates, paints family life as a dead-end hell from which its participants have little hope of escaping.
The year is 1955. DiCaprio and Winslet are Frank and April Wheeler, an outwardly happy couple living in a Connecticut suburb with their two children. As far as others are concerned, they are a successful, content family. Behind closed doors, however, Frank and April are deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Feeling imprisoned by the social conventions of their surroundings, they yearn for something more than the same routine day after day. April especially feels doomed to become a part of the mundane environment that she loathes, her ambitions of becoming an actress now effectively ended. The couple's disdain for the drab world in which they live extends to each other, and they quickly begin to loathe one another.
The film takes a chance by not showing the progression of the Wheelers' dissatisfaction, instead plunging us right into the middle of it from the very beginning. Only a brief opening scene of their first meeting and a later flashback to the day they bought their suburban house give us a glimpse at how happy and idealistic they once were. This approach works because, at this point in time, a film like "Revolutionary Road" is nothing new. While Yates' novel was an eye-opener in 1961, countless novels and films (and TV series and songs and plays) have been produced in the years since that have revealed the bitterness underneath the romanticized façade of American society. Even in the 1950s, German émigré Douglas Sirk directed a series of torrid melodramas that in their time were accepted as entertaining soap operas but in the passing decades were reevaluated as outright social satires. Because we are so familiar with the story of a couple descending into dissatisfaction, it is probably best that Mendes focuses on the Wheelers' attempt to bring themselves out of it rather than rehashing their descent.
Mendes, however, seems to take his cue from the wild histrionics of Sirk's movies, which simultaneously made them entertaining and called attention to the characters' artificiality. The first thing that is obvious about "Revolutionary Road" is that, while the set design and costumes are evocative of the drabness of the period, the performances feel more like actual film performances of the era than normal behavior. There is a forced quality in the acting (with the possible exception of DiCaprio) that deprives the film of true emotion. Kate Winslet, who is married to Mendes, has played a number of American women, but here her delivery and accent constantly seem over-pronounced and unconvincing. Likewise, Kathy Bates and Kathryn Hahn go overboard as the Wheelers' real estate agent and next-door neighbor, respectively, essentially playing caricatures of 1950s character actresses (witness Evelyn Varden in 1956's "The Bad Seed" to see what I'm talking about) that border on grotesque. One of the film's supposed revelations about its characters is that they are merely playing the roles that society dictates, but this idea is positively bludgeoned on the audience in the acting. While the mannered performances in Sirk's movies were very much a product of their time and came naturally to the actors, the performances in "Revolutionary Road" are too self-aware to create believable or sympathetic characters.
Into this tapestry comes John Givings (Michael Shannon), Bates' mental-case son and the most self-reflective aspect of the film. Taking the part of a Shakespearean fool, he is a character who should not be able to comprehend what is happening around him but is the only person who can see Frank and April for the disillusioned phonies they are. He proceeds to tell them exactly what is wrong with them, and apparently fearing that the audience is incapable of receiving the message, Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe then have April point out that John has told them exactly what is wrong with them. Such is characteristic of a film in which its themes are aggressively spelled out and subtext becomes maintext. As played by Shannon, John Givings is an almost comical character whose two brief appearances provide a relief from the film's heavy and at times hysterical severity. He reveals the film's potential to be a social satire, and indeed the rest of the cast's self-awareness and the often heavy-handed visuals (in one scene, the screen becomes almost blindingly white with a sea of pasty bodies against the colorless sand on a beach) might have been more welcome had their intent been more cynical. But, with a clinical score by Thomas Newman and Roger Deakins' exactingly precise cinematography, it is all played to oppressively serious effect without a hint of genuine emotion.
Paramount brings "Revolutionary Road" to DVD in a 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer. The film has a deliberately muted color palette, emphasizing the bland conformity of the environment, and the digital transfer does a good job rendering this look. As a result, the overall picture quality is hardly eye-catching, but it sufficiently follows Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins' intent. Some edge enhancement is visible throughout, and the image appears a bit flat. In general, this is an adequate transfer but hardly flawless.
Audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. As this is a dialogue-driven film, there is not a lot to judge here. The music score is very soft and understated, leaving the dialogue as the only major sound. Voices are clear and pleasing. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also provided, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Director Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe provide an audio commentary for the film. The two have a good rapport and keep the informative discussion constantly going, although at times the track is a bit on the dull side. I suppose your enjoyment of the film itself will greatly impact how much you get out of this commentary.
Up next is the 29-minute featurette, "Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road." Featuring interviews with the major cast and crew members, this is an informative look behind the scenes and at the journey the film took from the page to the screen.
Finally, there are five deleted scenes with optional audio commentary by Mendes and Haythe. Some of these are actually quite interesting, including an alternate ending that resolves a few questions left unanswered in the final film, although it does hit it right on the nose, as Mendes points out.
While "American Beauty" no longer seems like the masterpiece it was hailed as in 1999, it found a comfortable balance between melodrama and satire that makes it still a greater achievement than Mendes' latest film. "Revolutionary Road" covers ground that, quite frankly, others have captured more believably and entertainingly, not least among them David Lynch in "Blue Velvet" (1986), where at least the grotesquerie was intentional. This film is simultaneously too over-the-top to take seriously and too self-important to view as satire. It plays like Douglas Sirk without the irony.