I genuinely regret never having read Richard Yates’ novel “Revolutionary Road,” not only because its admirers tell me it’s a compelling look at mid-century ennui but also because any future attempts to read it will be tainted by the dreary film adaptation currently being inflicted upon audiences.
The characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet spend the film screaming about the other’s flaws, and I unfortunately found myself agreeing with both of them — both the protagonists are thoroughly mediocre, uninteresting people, and I never figured out why I was supposed to care about the fate of either of them.
Within the first two minutes of the film, we’re told that neither April Wheeler (Winslet) nor her husband Frank (DiCaprio) is anything special; when they met years earlier in New York City, she was studying to be an actress and he wanted to explore the world. Now she’s the veteran of a disastrous amateur theater company, while he readily embraces suburban blandness.
The couple make some noises about liquidating their assets, shedding the shackles of the ’burbs and running off to Paris, but we know that these non-entities are never going to make it happen. April gets pregnant, and Frank accepts a promotion, and both of them get the luxury of screaming at the other about ruining their lives.
If the characters themselves had something going for them, these battles might have some heft to them; heck, even if they were just given interesting barbs to fling at each other — it’s not like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” were the deepest souls on Earth — then “Revolutionary Road” might be the tiniest bit compelling. Instead, we get cardboard dullards shrieking until the veins pop up in their necks; the cumulative effect is not unlike an episode of “The Hills” where everyone is dressed like the cast of “Mad Men.”
Lots of talent goes to waste here, from the reunited “Titanic” stars to Kathy Bates to up-and-comer Michael Shannon (“Bug”); the latter gets stuck with one of those “author’s mouthpiece” roles that forces him to state aloud what we’re all supposed to be thinking. As if that weren’t clunky enough, he’s also playing a character who’s insane… except that he’s the most rational person in the movie! Get it?
Cinematographer Roger Deakins at least makes everything look terrific, whether it’s a Manhattan ad agency or a day at the beach, and production designer Kristi Zea and costumer Albert Wolsky capture the era as accurately as a stash of old Life magazines.
Too bad director Sam Mendes — Winslet’s husband, who already mined the toxic-suburbs motif in “American Beauty” — can’t seem to nail why he thought this was a story worth telling. I often found myself wishing I were watching April’s wretched community playhouse group instead.