Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Movies: Revolutionary Road

I really, really wanted to love Revolutionary Road. Oh man, did I want to love this movie. Enough to brave the massive crowd at Union Square at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night to see it. Which, by the way, never in my life have I shown up thirty minutes early for a movie and still had to sit in the third row because nowhere else in a cavernous, ~250 capacity theatre-with-balcony had two adjacent seats left. Jeebus. But really, I love Kate Winslet, I love Leonardo DiCaprio, I love (or thought I loved) Sam looked like a no-brainer to rank as one of my Top 10 movies of the year. What went wrong?

Well, not the acting, that’s for sure. Kate gives a gutsy, stripped down performance. She is the rare beautiful actress who isn’t afraid to be ugly and broken down, and looks all the more breathtaking for it. And Leo acts the hell out of a character with no real redeeming qualities. Michael Shannon, best known to New York theatre audiences for his roles in the Tracy Letts plays Bug and Killer Joe, is a scene stealer as a crackling wire of a man who was recently released from an asylum, and whose multiple electroshock treatments have given him both clarity of vision and lack of filter in reporting on what he sees. His brief appearances are easily the highlight of the film.

I also couldn’t find fault with any individual scene within the movie. Each one is shot and framed beautifully and the characters interact in interesting and meaningful ways. No scene felt extraneous or indulgent. And yet. All of those beautiful scenes played out by skilled actors do not add up to a coherent, satisfying story. This problem is revealed within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, when the opening scene where April (Winslet) and Frank (DiCaprio) first meet goes into a scene of the couple, already chafing at their suburban married life, having a snarling fight on the side of a road. The movie only flashes back a few times to fill in the time between scene one and scene two. I understand that this is a movie about the disintegration of a relationship, so too much time can’t be expended on the happy, early days of the courtship, but it’s hard to be moved by the death of a relationship to which we’ve yet to grow attached. The stakes just aren’t there.

I was surprised because I thought that Mendes had said something wonderful and profound about the American family in American Beauty. But after we got out of Revolutionary Road, my friend and I decided to take advantage of one of the last nights of decent weather we’ll see for a while by walking the forty blocks uptown rather than taking the subway, so I had some time to think. And I realized that, in retrospect, American Beauty is nowhere near as deep and profound as I found it to be when I first saw it at age sixteen. Which probably comes only as breaking news to me and me alone. American Beauty, in fact, is much like Revolutionary Road - a series of beautiful and interesting scenes that, strung end to end, do not make that satisfying a narrative.

The script is a little too earnest, barely salvaged by the skilled actors bringing it to life. Several lines that I’m sure were meant to evoke some kind of genuine emotion in the audience instead led to gut-splitting laughter in my section of the theatre. Granted, we were all kind of woozy from lack of blood to the head, since we were craning our necks to watch the giant screen that was only a few feet away from us, but I can’t imagine those lines garnering a different reaction farther back in the theatre. Especially the very obvious Titanic car sex shoutout - I could hear the laughter over that little doozy ringing down from the balcony. The first half of the movie also drags on far too slowly. During one scene, I checked my watch, certain the movie must be drawing to an end. I was surprised to see we were only at the halfway point. It does pick up in the second half, where the narrative also starts to come together from the disparate parts, but by then it’s almost too late to salvage the film.

Still, it is a movie worth seeing, if only for the performances of Kate, Leo, and Michael Shannon. It’s wonderful to see Kate’s April and Leo’s Frank fall out of love, back in love, and definitively out of love once and for all, as they try to balance their own hopes and ambitions with society’s expectations and, in Frank’s case, their self-sabotaging tendencies. And even if he can’t tell a cohesive narrative, Sam Mendes does still know how to frame a scene beautifully. There’s one mostly silent shot towards the end of the film, where April is staring out the window of her suburban prison cell, that I guarantee will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.


Sex Mahoney for President said...

I remember when American Beauty came out and how many of my young contemporaries regarded it as revolutionary. It's only okay, certainly not bad, but nothing particularly original. Almost like someone decided to make a serious version of Office Space with a homophobic storyline thrown in for good measure.

Have people started giving Leonardo DiCaprio the credit he deserves? He's not a bad actor.

smd said...

Yeah, I definitely fell into the trap of thinking American Beauty was so much more revolutionary than it was. But I was a teenager - what the hell is the Academy's excuse? Now Office Space, THAT is an enduring American classic.

And hey, I always gave Leo credit, but then, I was at the perfect impressionable age when he did Romeo + Juliet and Titanic. Still, he's one of the few things about my teenage years that HASN'T turned out to be much less awesome than I remember. (In other news, I humbly apologize for my statement, circa 1996, that "Green Day is SO MUCH MORE PUNK ROCK than those Fuck Pistols or whatever...." Sigh. So young! So stupid!) But yeah, I think Leo's more than won over his critics with his turns in The Departed and now Revolutionary Road.