It’s not hard to see what attracted the director of American Beauty to Revolutionary Road: it’s a similar style of tale of the doldrums of suburban living, the grind of marriage, and of unfulfilled dreams when reality gets in their way. Here we have the Wheelers, Frank and April (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), starting a young family in the 1950s in a house on Revolutionary Road in an affluent Connecticut suburb. Frank works for the same soul-sucking corporation that his father gave 20 years to, commuting back and forth to New York via train like so many breadwinners from the 50s. April is a failed actress who has succumbed to the demands of homemaking. Neither feels satisfied with where their lives have led them up to this point, and they dream of making drastic changes to realize the exciting life the 20-year-old versions of themselves had imagined they’d be leading by now.
Kurt Vonnegut called Richard Yates’ novel the Great Gatsby of his time, and in that comparison, the Wheelers’ green light at the end of the pier is Paris. It represents their idea of freedom (particularly of the intellectual variety) and becomes their unattainable—yet nevertheless constantly desired—goal. If only they could move to Paris, the Wheelers believe, then they would finally have the freedom to become the great people they’ve always known they would be, to accomplish Big and Great Things with their lives.
Are these sentiments that all people experience? I know I certainly do. While I didn’t celebrate my recent 30th birthday by banging my secretary, as Frank Wheeler does, I can definitely sympathize with the feeling of bitter reflection that came along with it: Didn’t I imagine myself accomplishing more by this point? Didn’t I think I would have done something special by now? While most of us, I think, accept life as it is for the most part, the Wheelers instead choose to run away from the lives they’ve found themselves in. This desire, as I say, seems to me to be a somewhat universal sentiment, and it’s personified in heart-wrenchingly realistic exchanges between them. Kate Winslet, in particular, gets to deliver some dialogue that expresses emotions I think we all must face at some point in our lives. She does so, as always, with a touching humanity and fierce passion, and watching her do so is a true cinematic treat.
The Wheelers’ dream, though, is a juvenile escape fantasy, an immature solution to a very adult problem. The fact that they have established a family (with 2 kids) and a life for themselves that is very much the portrait of the 1950s “American dream” makes it even more escapist. When they share their plans with their friends, Frank’s coworkers, or their real estate agent-cum-neighbor (Kathy Bates), the response is generally a thinly-veiled silent judgment, or a fake smile that does little to hide the “they’re not really serious, are they?” thoughts running through their confidantes’ minds. The one exception to this is John Givings (Michael Shannon), Bates’ character’s son, an institutionalized former mathematician. As the local crazy guy, he allows himself to speak out, and his character functions as the audible voice of Frank Wheeler’s inner conscience. It’s a joy to watch DiCaprio and Shannon play off of each other, one showing a man who doesn’t really know what he wants but is going to do something to get it anyway, the other showing a man who understands the dilemma and isn’t afraid to publicly point it out or to question the solution’s motivations.
The movie loses a little steam after setting up its characters’ central desires and conflicts, partially by starting to ignore basic tenants of storytelling (which I assume is a side effect of the adaptation process, with some events and explanations from the book necessarily being left out). For instance, there are long periods of time during which the Wheeler children are nowhere to be seen, although their care is supposedly providing somewhat of a burden to their parents. Then there’s an awkward scene at a nightclub that feels like it exists on an island, and is too obviously of a single purpose. These are minor gripes, though; this film is one that exists to convey emotions and states of mind, and it does so quite well, thanks primarily to the exceedingly strong performances from its two leads. These states of mind are so easy to relate to, and so thought-provoking in general, and communicated by such talented individuals, that thoughts of them will stick around in the minds of its audience long after the movie’s over.