As a reasonably contented lifelong bachelor, I wonder from time to time what life would have been like had I married young, had a few kids, took on a mortgage, and stayed in a job over twenty or thirty years. Generally I tend to think it would have been fine – just different. I would have (and who knows, may still) made a good husband, good father, good homeowner, good company man. It wasn’t anything I felt like I needed to do, though. I knew I’d grow up into a reasonably normal adulthood, because of and in spite of whatever I ended up doing, because of and in spite of the people who are or were important in my life, because of and in spite of the wildly mixed messages that white western culture informed my social and moral choices with. Marriage and kids and mortgages are a big leap, a big responsibility. And if they turn out well for the husband, the wife, the kids – even if maybe it takes more than the first husband, or the first wife, or the first or second house, or the third or fourth job – than you’ve genuinely accomplished something important. You made good choices, and learned the right things from the few mistakes you made. But if you haven’t been there, then no one, really, no one, knows what it’s like to be in a bad marraige, or find you’ve raised kids who turned out wrong, have your home foreclosed on, or discover twenty years later that your career has been meaningless. But that’s part of the leap, isn’t it? Those same existential dualities, that ‘because of and in spite of’ thing, is true for everyone – individuals, couples, kids, workers, etc., positively and negatively.
So it’s tempting for an unattached gadabout such as myself to point to the superb Revolutionary Road and say “See, that’s how it woulda turned out for me. There’s my biggest fearful scenario. Genuinely in love with her, genuinely in love with the kids, making my way in the world, and it all just goes wrong anyway. I’m not rich, I’m not famous, I don’t have hot-and-cold-running-women around all the time, I’ve bounced across a couple of careers, but man, really, having led a life that avoids THAT kind of a failure is also a genuine accomplishment, also something important.”
But nothing’s that simple, is it? Millions of little choices accumulate into what shape our lives take. It’s never the big gestures – marriage or none, hometown or travel, mortgage or rent, career or free-lance – that result in success or failure. It’s who we are before the choices, what we bring to them, and who we become within them, that ultimately determines how things go.
Frank and April Wheeler are all about the big choices, the big gestures, and that’s their compelling tragedy. They’re married, and honestly love each other. House-shopping results in a lovely home. He’s got a good job in the company Dad worked at, she’s raising the cute kids in the good neighborhood with the friendly neighbors. So why aren’t they happy? Why isn’t this enough? Is there something they’d rather be doing, someplace else they’d rather be? Those seem to be the issues; hence, April’s big idea. We’ll move to Paris! I’ll work for a living, you can raise the kids and we’ll find out what we’d really rather be doing. And it’ll be all different and better because it’s not here, it’s Paris! But a couple of subsequent events disturb the resolve of this mutual decision, and Frank and April’s unknowing defense of all of their little tiny choices starts to nibble away at the larger life they’ve created for themselves.
The movie did me the biggest favor I could ask of any film adaptation – it made me want to read the book. Those who have read the book, of course, and loved it, feared the Reader’s Digest version – a futile attempt to convey the inner voices of the characters, or the subtleties of the environment the characters inhabit. I don’t know the book – hell, that may be exactly what they got for all I can tell. But the film, on its own, is certainly a complete work on its own terms.
As a character study, its superb. Director Sam Mendes, in overall conception, has crafted a small but efficient melodrama machine with a smooth but dynamic rhythm and a definite destination. There’s a lot of Douglas Sirk here – the period art direction and supporting characters have that ‘Far From Heaven’ ubersheen – but Mendes is smart not to rely on a lot of consumerist props or conversational idiosyncrasies. He’s reined the emotional lushness of Sirk’s films in a little, but he picks his spots well for the fireworks when they do show up.
Frank and April are always irresistibly warts-and-all human – I never thought ‘OK, I get it, that’s enough, I know who they are already.” Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m delighted to say, really can be one of the most unmannered and spontaneous actors working today, based on this. Believe me, I was as surprised as you might be. There’s a wealth of physical choices and psychological calculation behind everything he’s doing here, obviously, but I never saw the seams. I was always watching Frank, never Leo. Between ‘Departed’, ‘Body Of Lies’ and now this, I’m sold on the guy. Much has been made of the Kate Winslet-can’t-compete-with-herself Oscar deal, but DiCaprio’s exclusion altogether is puzzling as well, as tough as the competition might be.
Kate Winslet’s phenomenal here. Really good performances like this remind me of the Paul Newman story from ‘Inside The Actor’s Studio.’ In filming a scene that Just Wasn’t Working, the director told him it was too long, he was taking too much time, he needed to pick up the pace. Newman’s epiphany was that the time didn’t matter – his problem was he wasn’t filling the moment. It wasn’t how long, it was how deep. When he finally brought it, and it really worked,the length of the scene just didn’t matter. That’s what I think Winslet brought here – a consistently fascinating, irresistibly watchable depth and focus and commitment. And I’d like to pay her the same compliment – always April, never Kate – except… (and I’m nitpicking here, forgive me) being British, she tends to manipulate the American accent; very effectively, admittedly, but the flatness and earnestness and forthrightness is a little too studied, a little presentational. But, honestly, I’m picking flyshit out of the pepper here. If she’s really even better in ‘The Reader’ than here, my head will explode. I felt lucky to have seen this performance.
Hell, everyone’s good here. Michael Shannon’s two scenes are out-of-the-park great. David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn, Dylan Baker, Jay O. Sanders, Zoe Kazan, Kathy Bates – effortless, seamless. They all worked their asses off to make it look this easy.
Ultimately, there are depressing movies that are depressing, and there are depressing movies that are cathartic, that open us up to the ‘because of and in spite of’ truths about ourselves, and leave us feeling a little more illuminated. This wonderful film is one of those.