On the Aisle

Novel devolves as Cinematic Etch-a-Sketch
“Revolutionary Road” is a dumbed down movie. But it’s not dumbed down for just general audiences; it’s dumbed down for would-be intellectual audiences, people who are supposed to like books. It sorely fits contemporary times.
The novel “Revolutionary Road,” written by Peter Yates and published in 1961, is a provocative, substantial work; the movie directed by Sam Mendes and adapted by mediocre screenwriter Justin Haythe is superficial.
“Revolutionary Road” is the story of the Wheelers, Frank and April, who meet, marry, have two children, and move to the suburbs. They pride themselves on being special, grow to believe they are superior to their environment and have illusions about their potential.
But when they make sanguine plans to move to Paris (in the book Frank is more reluctant) it all falls apart, and they turn against each other.
By the very nature of their forms, a movie has to be somewhat different from the book on which it is based, but it should succeed on cinematic terms as the book succeeded on literary terms. “Revolutionary Road” succeeds only as a book.
Even if April and Frank are not special, there have to be some reasons for their thinking they are. In the book there are reasons; in the movie, there are none. In the movie they basically are blank slates. Cinematic Etch-a-Sketches.
Screenwriter Haythe, who wrote the skimpy “The Clearing” (2004), throws out all the literary allusions in the book. In the book Frank makes allusions to Sartre, Henry James, Dylan Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, Hemingway, et al.. There are political references to Joe McCarthy, and discussions of sentimentality and society. The book has chapters about the other characters such as Shep, Milly, and Helen and Howard Givings. Haythe will have none of this. Instead he takes short cuts and omits telling evidence.
One of the biggest problems with the movie is that it is lackluster in its presentation. Until its belated harrowing conclusion, it is a movie of posturing. It shouldn’t be the same as what it is attacking. And it shouldn’t have dialogue that isn’t supported by action.
Frank and April think they are “special,” except they’re not. Neighbors call them “special” and realtor Helen Givings says to April, “You weren’t like my other clients. You were different. You just seemed special.”
No, they didn’t
April says to her husband, “Frank Wheeler, I think you are the most interesting person I ever met.”
One whit — one tiny example — of specialness or some interesting quality would give us some reason to accept that they think they are unique, but there is none. When Frank first meets April at a party, he says, “I’m a longshoreman.” Is that interesting? I thought it was a joke, but in the book Frank had worked on the docks for a week, and this showed his fickleness. In the movie, it’s just a bad pickup line.
In the book, the Wheeler’s two small children are important. In the movie, they’re props, and seldom appear. One scene that is dropped is when Frank uncomfortably has to read the funny papers to the kids. It is a revealing scene.
Since the screenplay renders the characters slight, it is up to the actors to flesh them out.
Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet are together again, but they are full of salt water. With the fatuous Charlie Rose on his TV show, the duo discussed how the novel provided them as actors with rich backstories. Unfortunately, they would have to pass out the novel with your ticket for you to realize the motivation. It’s nowhere in the movie. In the book Frank and April are rounded characters; in the movie they are self-involved twerps.
Maybe the actors could revivify the movie’s mediocre characters, but they don’t. Di Caprio plays Frank as a child who needs a time out. Winslet is not memorable in a role rendered thankless by the screenwriter. They are not titanic; they are fishy.
For years Kate Winslet wanted to make “Revolutionary Road.” Finally she convinced her husband Sam Mendes to direct the film. Mendes may not win an Academy Award this year, but he gets this year’s Guy Ritchie (former-Mr. Madonna) Award.
Kathy Bates portrays the realtor, and Michael Shannon gives the film some brief life as the institutionalized son of neighbors
As in Doubt, the best contributor is the cinematographer Roger Deakins. He creates an ironic ambience at the climax, and his shots of men, like sheep wearing hats, waiting at the railroad station, on the train, and in Grand Central Station are evocative. But these shots are obvious; everybody in the theater can feel superior to these hatted men.
Satires and social criticism should be lively and perceptive. “The Graduate” (1967), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) and Mendes’ own “American Beauty” (1999) have spirit and vision. “Revolutionary Road” does not. It has less of the whiff of truth than the odor of ego.

Categories: Entertainment