I saw Revolutionary Road over the weekend, and moderated a panel Saturday with director Sam Mendes, Leonardo DiCaprio (nominated three times), Kate Winslet (nominated five times), Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, theater actor Michael Shannon (W.), cinematographer Roger Deakins (nominated seven times) and composer Thomas Newman (nominated eight times).
First, do read Richard Yates’ 1961 debut novel. The adaptation by Justin Haythe is very close; some scenes are staged exactly the way they were originally written. Is the movie as great as Yates’ novel? No. But Yates never caught the popular imagination, never sold more than 12,000 copies of any of his seven novels, because he was too searing, too critical of his characters. He held no hope for couples like the Wheelers. He dissected them as though they were pinned insects.
Mendes definitely warms up the book. The movie offers some possibility of hope for the rest of us. It lives and breathes. As do DiCaprio and Winslet, reunited more than a decade after Titanic. She always gives strong performances, but runs with the layered role of deeply unhappy housewife April Wheeler. She’s smart and trapped and angry and resigned and still in love with the person she once thought her husband could be. How many women are in that position? What happens when you face up to the idea that your mate will not or cannot become his best self?
DiCaprio, who has never before played a husband and father, is well-cast as the 29-year-old Frank Wheeler, who wants to be more special than he is, but settles for less. (The Bohemian intellectual side of this couple is downplayed here.) How many men lead what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” as they try to live up to their wives’ expectations, and often wind up disappointing them? It doesn’t have to be the 50s for this to ring true.
Revolutionary Road, produced by Scott Rudin after years of arrested development, is strictly an art-house play–and should score with the Academy. Mendes takes a more realistic and less stylized approach to this dysfunctional suburban family than he did on the Oscar-winning American Beauty. The entire ensemble is first-rate: Shannon got a rousing round of applause at my screening for his role as the insane truth-teller who cuts through all the crap. The movie hits hard: some folks relate to it, others don’t.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]