MOVIE RATING: 3.5 stars (B)
(Updated May 25, 2012)
Revolutionary Road (2008) is a film that is fearless in asking the big questions of life…and looking at the answers that our culture provides and that we provide for ourselves. While set in the suburbs of mid-50s America, the movie feels just as relevant and present today as then. For when it comes to marriage, relationships, family, career, and dreams, the questions and answers around those things are timeless. Director Sam Mendes, who made the Oscar-winning Best Picture American Beauty (1999), has crafted a very similar picture here, set 50 years earlier but with the same basic story of a married couple in the suburbs who are at a stage in their lives and marriage where they are not sure what to do and how to live. The couple in Revolutionary Road, played flawlessly by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, are almost like the 1950’s parents of the couple played by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in American Beauty. The parallels between the two movies have been shared by many other viewers and critics of the film I’m sure.
While I think American Beauty looks at the big questions in a slightly more dramatic and cinematic way, the subtlety of Revolutionary Road is just as powerful if one pays attention to it. Which I really noticed today on my second viewing of the film after seeing it over a year ago when it first came out on DVD. I give American Beauty 4 stars out of 5 and Revolutionary Road 3.5 stars out of 5. Both are adult dramas and very well crafted films with great writing, acting, cinematography, and music. I’m surprised that Revolutionary Road wasn’t nominated for more Oscars than the three minor categories it was. But I think the Academy probably felt that this was another American Beauty, which won 5 Oscars, and so it passed it by for other films that year, such as The Reader (2008), which also starred Kate Winslet and for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress. The Reader is a good film as well (I also give it 3.5 out of 5 stars), but I actually felt that Winslet was better and more deserving of her Best Actress Oscar for her work in this film.
As Revolutionary Road unfolds, we see DiCaprio and Winslet’s characters, Frank and April Wheeler, both mature and become cynical. It’s April’s “failed” final appearance on stage as an aspiring actress, the dream career that she’s had all her life, that seems to trigger something deep inside her…and inside Frank. After pondering this failure and fighting with Frank, April comes up with the idea that they should quit their “American Dream” life and move to Europe, specifically Paris, France. Frank had visited Paris as a young man and loved it more than any other place. Having failed at making her dreams come true, I think April now wants to live vicariously through Frank going after his dream career in his dream place. Since she seemingly can’t make her dreams come true, she now wants Frank to make his come true. But Frank has fallen into the easy suburban “Father Knows Best” lifestyle in the suburbs, and he doesn’t realize that he actually loves it. So initially, he gets excited by April’s idea of moving the family to France, where she will work and support him as he “finds himself”. With this exciting and reinvigorating change upcoming, Frank starts taking risks at his job, which actually pay off with an offer for a huge promotion. And when Frank finds out that April is pregnant with their third child, he knows then that what he wants is his family life that they already have more than anything else. That’s who he is. He just didn’t know it before.
Part of what is interesting to me about Revolutionary Road is that the typical male/female gender roles are reversed in this film. Frank is really the stable family-oriented parent, and April is the free-willing risk-taking parent. I assume that there must have been men and women that did fit into these roles in the 50’s just like today, even though our history books don’t usually talk about it. Instead we usually get the stereotypical gender roles presented to us through 50s nostalgia. But I like that Revolutionary Road explores these issues by taking a more “modern” or current view on the big life questions through role reversals. I think it makes the viewer, or at least me personally, look at these questions of purpose, happiness, and what I want in my life as universal human questions that have nothing to do with gender or the time in which we live. The fear that we all must confront in asking and answering these questions for ourselves is the same regardless of the context in which we are in.
Revolutionary Road is a smart, mature adult film well worth watching. By “escaping” into the past, it actually helps us look at ourselves in the present.
Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.