If there’s any unifying theme in the director Sam Mendes’ work, it’s disappointment. The morose father-son power games in Road to Perdition; the soldiers who don’t get to see the combat they crave in Jarhead; and of course Kevin Spacey’s suburban malaise in American Beauty. To be an American man, according to Mendes, is to settle for less. Revolutionary Road, Mendes’ new film, based on Richard Yates’ acclaimed but (until this adaptation) all but forgotten novel, is almost a proto-American Beauty. Once again, an American couple withers and dies inside the empty life demanded of them by the great suburban premise: Everyone’s the same, everyone’s pleasant, nobody rocks the boat or wants more than the job, the marriage, the children, the nice house.
What’s the point now, though, of adapting Yates’ closely observed novel? Yates meant to bemoan the ‘50s-era conformity of a nation born in tumult and revolt — hence the book’s ironic title. There’s little of Yates’ wit in the movie (written for the screen by Justin Haythe), and that’s not all that’s missing. In the book, a day or so after a typical fight between youngish couple Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), the pair’s two children want to help Frank lay a stone path in the front yard. Their presence annoys Frank, who eventually snaps at them, sending them crying to April. This scene isn’t in the movie, and the kids barely are either. They’re conveniently absent a lot of the time so that Frank and April can go at each other in ferocious spats that play for all the world like acting workshops.
April proposes that they tear themselves away from deadening suburbia and move to Paris — Frank hates his job anyway, and it might be fun for April to bring home the bacon for a change while Frank thinks about what he really wants to do with his life. But you know what they say about how to make the gods laugh. As it goes on, Revolutionary Road starts to feel like a tepid rewrite of a Douglas Sirk weepie, without Sirk’s blend of soap opera and just plain opera — the suffering in his films was outsized, Wagnerian. The people here just seem petulant, and despite the histrionics of DiCaprio (this isn’t his best work) and Winslet (who gets one of those patented contemptuous laughing jags — it almost derails her entire performance) the Wheelers are never much more than abstract sketches of conformist angst.
What worked and was funny in the novel is near-unplayable onscreen. I’m thinking of a scene with Kathy Bates as the twittering mother of a mental case (Michael Shannon, too aware he’s got a scene-stealing role); when the nutjob — the movie’s only voice of reason, get it? — starts spouting off, Bates springs up and starts nattering on about the window view, which is in the book, but here it sounds like amateur theater. Every so often, Thomas Newman sadly tickles the ivories on the soundtrack, clueing us in that this is a great tragedy; the movie is a throwback not to ‘50s melodrama but to some of the more self-important Oscar bait of the ‘80s.
If I felt for anyone in the film, it’s poor Shep Campbell (David Harbour), who often invites the Wheelers over for drinks with him and his wife Milly (Kathryn Hahn). Shep has his own thoughts about the Wheelers’ Paris trip, and the blockishly handsome Harbour, who would’ve looked at ease in a Sirk weeper, communicates more outlaw yearning than DiCaprio or Winslet are allowed. The movie ends exactly as the book does, except that in Yates it had a caustic tang in keeping with the rest of the prose, whereas here it just seems misogynistic. Mendes tries to paint as much without words as he can — the image of an obviously slept-on couch speaks volumes — but the movie is, like the Wheelers’ lives, well-appointed but hollow. It turns out there was a reason nobody made a film out of Revolutionary Road for so many years: the book is the prose, the voice, the viewpoint. Take that away and you have squabbling and clichés.