In 1999, Sam Mendes made a great movie about suburban malaise in the 90’s, “American Beauty.” Though it begins and ends with a suicide, it is a hopeful, if sarcastic, vision about rejecting the status quo and pursuing happiness, on whatever terms are available. Now, almost ten years later, Sam Mendes is back with another movie about suburban malaise, this one set in the ’50s, but not nearly as hopeful. It’s good to know we made some progress from 1950 to 1990. We still are faced with the same basic problem – “the emptiness and hopelessness of suburban life” — but at least by now, we’ve found ways to fight back.
In “Revolutionary Road,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are your typical married couple via 1955 – big house (but not too big,) two kids, a job in the city, and an awul lot drinks and cigarettes to keep up a healthy level of numbness to it all. Even a little infidelity on the side, but nothing to throw a fuss over. Only they always thought they were better than this, destined for more. He works in the same firm as his father, whose name nobody knows, and who he swore he’d never be like. She wanted to be an actress, but that was years ago. Like I said, they’re pretty typical — their primary skill being the ability to blame their unhappiness on each other, as well as mask their own desires as “concern” for the others’ well-being. Welcome to Marriage in the ’50s.
Winslet hatches a crazy plan. They’ll move to Paris, where she’ll work as a secretary (“do you know how much they pay secretaries in those foreign offices? It’s outrageous!”) while he figures out what it is he’s passionate about. What’s crazy about this plan isn’t that they’re going to sell everything and move to a different country; it’s that she really thinks she’ll be happier doing menial office work than cleaning house, and he really thinks he’ll discover something great about himself once they’re in a different country. It’s a move away from, in Leo’s words, “the emptiness and hopelessness of suburban life” into… well, something different, at least.
But as soon as they make their crazy decision to live life to the fullest, life empties both barrels at them. He gets a promotion and a raise. She gets pregnant. Suddenly, the Paris move carries a much greater cost, and the dream buckles underneath the weight of that cost. Somewhere in here “Revolutionary Road” starts to feel a lot like the old play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — the arguments are intense, but it’s almost impossible to differentiate the cleverly disguised barbs from the times when someone takes unreasonable offense at next to nothing. The film is dominated by these intense arguments between DiCaprio and Winslet, and thank God these two actors can bring it.
Michael Shannon makes occasional appearances as the “unwell” son of the real estate lady, on short breaks from the mental hospital. But for all intents and purposes, he is the prophet of Revolutionary Road. He is Isaiah wandering naked through Jerusalem, unafraid to say what he sees, unconcerned about others’ opinions of him. Shannon brings great, fiery energy to the role, an energy that cuts through the numbness and bickering of everyone around him. The screen sparks and pops when he’s on, and when he exits, the yelling and frustration of everyone else just seems like an exercise.
One of the lies (or at least glosses) of Hollywood is that nobody in their right mind could be happy as a housewife. “Revolutionary Road” goes that route; one could say that DiCaprio wins the battle of the wills, and the movie ends tragically as a result. Portraits abound of women slowly quietly dying in this role, but you’d have to look long and hard to find someone relishing it — someone that is happy and healthy and not insane or repressed, anyway. And yet I know several women for whom there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing, and a few who resent the fact that they’re expected to work and have a career and aren’t allowed to just stay home and take care of their kids. Certainly it’s tragic when a woman who doesn’t want to be a wife and mother is forced into that role. But isn’t it tragic, as well, that the happy homemakers and mothers never see themselves represented on the big screen?
- If you liked “American Beauty.”
- if you, or your parents grew up in the ’50s, and were miserable.
- if “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is one of your favorite plays.
- if you love watching great actors yell at each other.
- if you are a mother and/or homemaker, and like your life.
- if you hate watching actors, great or otherwise, yell at each other.