I’m not a big fan of Sam Mendes because I’m never sure if he’s completely serious or if he expects his audience to be smarter than his characters.
Case in point is Revolutionary Road, in which a handsome couple — Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio — talk about how much better life is in Paris than in the American suburbs. “People are alive there, not like here,” says one, and “I want to feel things, really feel them.” And to illustrate their passion, they have a rather mechanical, not-very-creative quickie on the kitchen counter.
If Mendes wants me to say “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel,” then I really hate his movies, because he needs to be far more genuine and succinct to win me over. If, on the other hand, he’s acknowledging to me that those are the sorts of words that youth blinded by passion use when they think they’re being deep, then I suppose I appreciate his characterizations. The problem is that I can’t tell whether he’s speaking earnestly through the characters or observing them from a more adult and grounded distance.
The American Dream
R for language, some sexual content/nudity
Kate and Leo (as April and Frank) strike up a passionate affair at a party. He’s frank and honest; he’s a dockworker with no grand ambitions. Already she likes the honesty and believes there is something deep and poetic in him. Whether there is or not is never answered.
They make ends meet and settle down on Revolutionary Road, one of the nicest houses “out here” in the suburbs. But Kate still has the wanderlust and Leo is happy to follow. They laugh and scoff at the stiff neighbors who are shocked by their bohemian plans to ditch The Man, live in Paris, first on their savings and then on her salary while he finds his calling — all of this is her idea. It sounds great, and when they laugh at the squares, we really root for them as the couple we all secretly wish we were a part of.
But plans change. Some people change and others don’t. And when that happens there is friction. And where there is friction, there is drama.
Love and Hate
The acting in Revolutionary Road is very good, thanks largely to a dramatic situation that demands it. Passions run high as characters talk about their very purpose in life, and in which the central conflict is a choice over two completely different approaches to living. It’s no wonder that Winslet and DiCaprio have room to give great performances.
As much as I like the drama, I hate the music from composer Thomas Newman. It is very “Sam Mendes,” evoking concepts like “awakening” or “discovery” with rubato themes on the upper keys of a piano. The music is laced with emotional imperatives. It is very modern, in stark contrast to the costumes, hair, and sets. It tries desperately to dictate my emotions and is intrusive as hell to my ears.
But I do like the “American dream” theme that Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe (working from the novel by Richard Yates) explore. I like that our protagonists and their neighbors say “out here” to refer to the suburbs, acknowledging that they’re no longer in the thick of things. And whether or not Mendes agrees with them, the protagonists find the suburban American Dream to be a trap. Right or wrong, they have uncovered a very important decision in anyone’s life: whether to live in a place with infinite cultural opportunities, or whether to choose safety and tradition.
I only wish Mendes would make it clear whether he sees his characters’ dreams as being the shallow whining of an angst-ridden teenager like Holden Caulfield, or whether he actually believes that living in Paris, for example, can actually change your life.
Perhaps the thing that tips me from liking Revolutionary Road to disliking it is the movie’s ending. The relationship between Frank and April starts strong and admirable. As their turbulence gets stronger, the dramatic conflict get more intense. But before the drama can reach a climax, something happens to deprive us of a winner in their battle. Even though Frank and April were often fighting, they felt alive. The ending takes that immediacy and puts it behind a screen. Rather than riding the bomb to ground zero, we take the perspective of the bomber. Instead of witnessing a tragic inferno worthy of our passions (and the catharsis that would bring), we experience a frustrating funerary potluck and greeting-card sympathies.
On the other hand, if Sam Mendes is a genius, perhaps that’s his exact point — that the real tragedy is that if we can’t have a pure and powerful life, then at least we want a pure and explosive death — and when instead the American suburbs give us plastic lilies, death becomes even more tragic because it’s the death of feeling.
But not knowing whether to take Mendes at face value, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s a very perceptive, extremely subtle director in tune with the nuances of the human condition. Or whether he’s a shallow teenager a la Holden Caulfied, scoffing at the phonies, never realizing that he himself is just a kid.