Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movies: Revolutionary Road

I've meant to read this book for years now, and still haven't gotten to it. Nevertheless, I was still able to find the movie disappointing.

Perhaps my hopes were too high. Visually, there is nothing wrong with the picture; the light is buttery and warm on Kate Winslet at home, cool and steely on Leonardo DiCaprio at the train station and in the office. Certain sequences (particularly of all the perfectly choreographed gray and blue and brown hats descending the stairs at Grand Central Terminal) are a bit heavy-handed, but that can, I suppose, be forgiven. But the over-rehearsed delivery of the too-literary screenplay cannot be; Kate and Leo shuttle between giving the sense that they're putting on a stage play (ironic, given that Kate's character is a failed actress) and simply playing house (again ironic, given that the young couple is in a way playing at house). One never quite gets over the fact that one is watching Kate and Leo (rather than Daisy and Frank Wheeler)—disappointing, since we know they are both better than that (cf. Kate in Little Children, in which she plays a ethically-similar role and Leo in The Departed or Catch Me If You Can, protean roles that he plays with intent zest).

Hearing the book described by those who have read it, the story seems to belong to Frank, trapped in a soulless, corporate position despite the ambitions of his youth. But the movie belongs to Daisy, trapped in a house with two children and a third on the way, despite the ambitions of her youth. Frank never knew quite what he wanted to do; Daisy actually wanted to be something (even if wanting to be an actress is something for us to privately smirk about). Frank gets recognized for his work with a promotion; Daisy gets chided for even considering an abortion. Moving to Paris is her idea, an idea with which Frank plays along until it's no longer convenient for him.

I've never considered myself a feminist, but after watching this film, I wanted to go straight to the church of Ortho and thank the gods of contraception on my knees. A friend described the movie's end as "devastating" (Daisy does decide to end her pregnancy, alone at home, and as a result, bleeds to death.)* But I didn't find this devastating at all; in fact, after all the couple's raging arguments, their actually having the third child would be much more devastating. I am, in that sense, rather aligned with the movie's best-written character (and the only one portrayed with any subtlety at all, by Michael Shannon): the clinically-insane John Givings, son of the Wheelers' real estate agent and neighbor (not-so-subtle Kathy Bates). John's mother describes him as "an intellectual," so brings him to the "nice, young Wheelers'" for drinks on his afternoon off from the loony bin. John's turns out to be the only voice of reason, acknowledging that "a lot of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to acknowledge the hopelessness." He is the one that "curses" Daisy's pregnancy, in a beautifully filmed shot in which the focus melts from him, standing in the background, to Daisy's profile, smoking in the foreground.

My final complaint about the film is another ironic one: Kate and Leo are constantly smoking and drinking, and I feel like the actors use these gestural ticks as a crutch. This is ironic, of course, because Frank and Daisy and every American in the 1950s and probably every person everywhere at every time uses smoking and drinking as a crutch, to pass the time, to suffer through, to silence the ghosts. But the blame likely lies with Mendes, for letting them do it, for lingering everlong on the flaming sticks, the clinking ice cubes. Certainly, these moments create tone, but this movie is not supposed to be an amber-colored tone poem. It's supposed to seethe and suppurate. And most times, the cigarettes are a huge distraction. Daisy and Frank have a knock-out, drag-down fight, and Daisy runs out of the house and into the woods. Frank chases her. She screams. He leaves. She lights a cigarette. Wait. When, in the middle of that knock-out, drag-down fight, did she remember to grab her ciggies and engraved silver lighter as she ran out of the house? Right. Mendes just liked the look of her hand up against her face as she leaned against the tree, as shot from the kitchen window, where Frank watches her. If not smoking, what would she have been doing? Something a bit more nuanced? Never.

And that, ultimately, is the reason this film disappoints: it lacks personal nuance. Daisy and Frank are basically typecast. Because they stand in for the American couple, this is within reason, to a degree, but the result is somewhat airless, stagy. For studies on the American Dream's lack of feasibility, so far as movies go, I will stick with Little Children (would have loved to see Patrick Wilson as Frank instead of Leo; I'm certain it would have been a much more dynamic and credible pair). I'll still give the book a chance, eventually.

*Feminist says, "God forbid she actually has a successful abortion and leaves her husband and two kids behind, moving to Paris on her own, and living happily ever after." It's astounding that traditional media still insists on punishment by the death penalty for women who dare to choose their own sexual and procreative fate.

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