Shortly before his death in 1992, Richard Yates, the author of Revolutionary Road, bemoaned the fact that two of his wishes as a writer—fairly common among the breed—never came to pass: One, to have a book reviewed on the front page of the New York Times and two, have a short story published in the New Yorker.( A third wish usually out of reach for most writers is to have your creation make it to the screen. Yates would have been pleased that his most famous book has just been turned into an adequate film by the adequate director Sam Mendes, author of “American Beauty” and husband of Kate Winslet who is the female lead here.
“Revolutionary Road” may be adequate but it’s cold. The fifties is a decade that does not lend itself well to being recreated. It’s not that something is missing but rather that something has been added—the long way we’ve come from that claustrophobic, mysoginistic, conformist time. Authentic films made in the fifties give us much more of a sense, without our present-day irony, of what it was to be a company man daily commuting by train to the city or a housefrau doing her chores in pumps and lace aprons. One of the striking moments in Sam Mendes’ film is that commute.
It brings to mind “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” the great 1956 Gregory Peck vehicle after Sloan Wilson’s best-seller. The story in “Revolutionary Road” is that of the Wheelers. April is a would-be actress who can’t act and resigns herself—for the present—to life in the suburbs and to conformity. She married Frank Wheeler because she saw in him artistic aspirations and potential greatness but he turns out to be too ordinary a man and too cautious to accept her plan of moving to Paris where she would support him—as a secretary of course; women mostly didn’t think beyond being a secretary—while he found himself.
After a show of initial enthusiasm, Frank finds the plan unrealistic, as do his friends and colleagues. Someone sensing April’s rebellion against her humdrum life asks her if she wants out to which she responds that she wants in. She knows, as not many people in her situation did, that real life is not in the picture-perfect suburbs, the pretty lawns, the men who put food on the table and the obedient wives. The film is a period piece, precise in all details. Just look at the tastefully arranged hors-d’oeuvre April offers their neighbors when they come to spend the evening. Cubed cheese and candied cherries on toothpicks, platters of deviled eggs.
There are two-martini lunches galore, constant smoking and drinking, even by pregnant April, and an illustration of corporate life where people spent thirty years to retire with the gift of a watch and a pat on the shoulder, as Frank’s father did, in the same corporation where the son is now employed. Kate Winslet who’s just had a brilliant turn in “The Reader” gets another Golden Globe for this film but where DiCaprio should be bland, he looks far too intelligent and alive so ends up contrived and almost awkward.
Nothing works too well and “Revolutionary Road” is, ultimately, too sad a film. Five decades after the time in which it is set, we may feel today that we live in a frightful world but this film conveys, rightly or not, the sense that people back then didn’t live at all.