Ever since it was announced in the spring of 2007 (as I recall), I've been anticipating the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road with a mix of curiosity and dread. It's no secret I've been kind of mixed about the output of the obviously gifted director Sam Mendes. One of my first acts as film critic for Premiere magazine was to ridiculously over-rate American Beauty. The showy Road To Perdition did have its moments (including a spectacular turn from the then-unknown Daniel Craig—one of Mendes' signal strengths is that he knows from good acting, and good actors), but Jarhead was a complete whiff. Largely because, as it turns out, the material itself—the movie's based on a facile Army memoir—was no great shakes. But Mendes' snotty "the Americans don't get me" comments after the picture deservedly tanked stuck in my craw. Still, you can't judge an artist by his interviews, Lou Reed excepted.
Haythe's screenplay is a pretty deft compression of Yates' story, in which Frank and April Wheeler, upon concluding that their Connecticut suburban existence—Frank commutes to Manhattan every day to a soul-crushing corporate communications job, while April, a once would-be actress, tends the two kids at home—is a massive fail, hatch a scheme to move to Paris, where Frank can realize his potential while April brings home the bacon with some cushy (and likely chimerical) embassy-type job. The plan puts a temporary halt to the couple's increasingly heated back-biting as they amaze their friends and neighbors—nattering real-estate agent Mrs. Givings, nice-but-square neighbors Shep and Millie Campbell, Frank's dyspeptic alkie co-worker Jack—with their daring noncomformity. Soon enough actual life intrudes, in the form of unexpected pregnancy, Frank's unexpected (and deeply ironical) success at work, and the disturbing reality checks delivered by Mrs. Givings' mentally disturbed son John.
This is great stuff for actors, and the cast makes the most of it. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Frank, is a roiling knot of resentments who, among other things, hews to Nabokov's observation about adultery being the most conventional way of being unconventional. That is, when he's not lashing out over April's constant failure to appreciate how great he is to her. Kate Winslet's April toggles between irrational exuberance and coiled hatred, up until a transformation at the very end that's as terrifying and sad as HAL's meltdown at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sounds like a weird analogy, but wait until you've seen it. David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn give some interesting contours to the "normal" Shep and Millie, Dylan Baker does his usual yeoman work as Jack. Michael Shannon's intensity as the disturbed John Givings skates on very thin ice; one over-modulated line reading or gesture and he could fall straight into caricature, but he never does. Only Kathy Bates' Mrs. Givings roams into American Beauty-style broadness—but truth to tell, the character is in fact just as broad in the novel, and provides the book (and the film) with a mordant but not exactly subtle punchline.
I allude to Frank's adultery above; the object of his cocksmanship is a character named Maureen Grube; given that name and such, it should come as no surprise that the novel does not portray this young secretary particularly sympathetically. Yates had a misogynist streak, to be sure, which he transcended with his best characterizations. Grube isn't one of them. The young actress Zoe Kazan, who plays her in the film, noted in a recent New York Times interview that the character in the book is "a figure of ridicule" and determined not to play her that way. Her brief turn as Maureen is rather moving, conveying the character's wide-eyed, almost bovine admiration for Frank but never making her a bimbo.
As for Mendes, he lets the material and the actors do much of the work for him. He doesn't altogether eschew cinematic flourish, though. Working with ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, he tends to favor long takes here, but rather than aspiring to the fluidity of Ophuls/Preminger/Kubrick, he does his own thing with them—having a non-Steadicam-ed handheld keep up with Frank's impotent, enraged pacing around the house, or holding one character in focus with the background blurred, then shifting the focus to the other character for the remainder of the shot. It all works well, save for one overly pretty shot near the very end, by which time I was inclined to let him have his way.
I hear there's lots of, whaddya call it, Oscar buzz on this thing, and sentimental appeal on account of the Kate and Leonardo thing, and all. Which is all very sweet. That aside, this is a pretty uncompromised, and uncompromisingly bleak picture (although Mendes does let in a glimmer of hope at the end that's not in the novel and might not even be spotted right away by a lot of the novel's fans)—one that I hope finds an audience.