Embracing the Melodrama Part II #115: Revolutionary Road (dir by Sam Mendes)


Revolutionary_roadI have such mixed feelings about the 2008 film Revolutionary Road.

As you may remember, Revolutionary Road got a lot of attention because it reunited the Titanic lovers, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  In Revolutionary Road, they would be playing the type of married couple that we all know Jack and Rose would have become if the boat hadn’t hit that iceberg.

Revolutionary Road also got a lot of attention because it was directed by Sam Mendes and it was a return to the “suburbs-as-Hell” genre of filmmaking that won Mendes an undeserved Oscar for his work on American Beauty.

And finally, Revolutionary Road was based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates that had originally been declared to be unfilmmable.  After decades of being optioned and then abandoned, Revolutionary Road was finally coming to the screen.

With all that in mind, a lot of critics expected that Revolutionary Road would be one of the best films of the year.  When the film itself was finally released, there were a few ecstatic reviews.  There were predictions of Oscar glory.  But, for the most part, both audiences and critics had a somewhat muted reaction.  The film itself simply did not live up to all of the build up.

That said, Kate Winslet gave a great performance.  In the role of aspiring actress-turned-housewife-turned-prisoner April, Winslet gives a fierce and tragic performance.  The film revolves around April’s struggle to live her own life and pursue her own ambitions in a world that continually tells her that she should simply be happy and content to have a husband, two children, and a house in the suburbs.  When April describes her life as being full of “hopeless emptiness,” we all know exactly what she’s talking about.

Leonardo DiCaprio was a bit less convincing as her husband, Frank.  Then again, that’s not really a surprise.  DiCaprio is always at his worse whenever he has to play a “normal” character.  His screen presence is too off-center for him to be believable as a suburban conformist.  It was obviously good publicity to reunite DiCaprio and Winslet but that doesn’t change the fact that Leo is totally miscast.  Whenever Frank and April fight, Kate Winslet seems to be screaming from her very soul while DiCaprio is just shrill.  Admittedly, Frank is meant to be a shallow character but that doesn’t justify a shallow performance.

Throughout the film, Frank and April are constantly nagged by their real estate agent, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates).  Whenever Helen drops by the house, she goes “Yoo hoo!” in the shrillest way possible and the audiences is reminded that Sam Mendes is not a particularly subtle director.  That willingness to go over-the-top made him the perfect director for Skyfall but, in both American Beauty and this film, it just leads to some talented actors giving very bad performances.

Helen’s son, John (Michael Shannon), has one of those cinematic mental illnesses, the type that gives him the power to explicitly state each scene’s subtext.  John is also one of those overly theatrical characters who works a lot better as a literary conceit than as an actual character.

And really, I guess that sums up why I have never liked Revolutionary Road as much as I wanted to.  The film works whenever it focuses on Kate Winslet, precisely because she gives such a heartfelt and naturalistic performance.  However, at the same time, Winslet is so good that she exposes how artificial and theatrical the rest of the film is.  If only the rest of the production had followed Winslet’s lead, Revolutionary Road could have been something great.

For all the pre-release Oscar hype, Revolutionary Road was largely ignored when it came to the Academy Awards.  Michael Shannon received a surprise nomination for best supporting actor but otherwise, the film was snubbed.  Kate Winslet, however, did finally win an Oscar that year when she picked up the Best Actress award for her performance in The Reader.

3 responses to “Embracing the Melodrama Part II #115: Revolutionary Road (dir by Sam Mendes)

  1. That’s pretty much the *exact* same review I would write.
    Should have, could have been better. Some very watchable moments, but ultimately very unsatisfying. And yes, Leo seems to be barely invested – yeah, the character may not be great, but he is able to elevate when he wants to. Winslet just about always great.
    Of somewhat historical interest that she was being directed by soon to be -ex in an examination of anything but wedded bliss.

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  2. I recommend this for the performances alone. I’m really not a fan of the whole “Suburbia Is Hell” genre (I don’t know if that phrase is yours or not, Lisa…either way, I’m stealing it) Few things in a movie bore me faster than privileged, pretty white folks with terrific jobs and beautiful houses bemoaning how The American Dream has let them down and how they never got to live the life they wanted. Blerg, says I.

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