Saturday, March 07, 2009

And I'm going to Tangiers!

I know how uncool it is to love American Beauty, and I'm sort of embarrassed that I do. I still think it's the perfect movie for a 16-year-old - seeing it at that age, it affected me in a profound way, and for that I'll always remember it fondly as a specific kind of masterpiece. That said, every time I watch it, I find myself thinking more and more of my friend Garrison's admission that, during the plastic bag scene, he couldn't stop thinking about cigar-chomping teamsters manning leaf blowers just out of frame. There's no question that Sam Mendes' films are meticulously designed, and the effect is fascinating for some and oppressive for others. Revolutionary Road, Mendes' adaptation of the classic Richard Yates novel, is his most fastidious film yet, but here, the oppressive feeling is wholly intentional. The most scabrous relationship movie since Bad Timing, Revolutionary Road is like a dark B-side to American Beauty's search for poetry in the banality of suburbia - here, there are no signifiers of beauty to be found, death provides no epiphanies, and the sensitive young man in the neighborhood reveals not spiritual awareness but hypocrisy and self-delusion. Dour and unsparing, Revolutionary Road is Mendes' best and most surprising movie yet; I must finally admit to myself that, cool or not, I'm a fan.

Yates' book tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple trying to break free of suburban conformity, in a terse, often blunt style, laying bare their self-delusions with the dispassionate clarity of an entomologist studying insects wriggling on a pin. The movie is as much a dissection as the book, starting as it does with a sharp cut from Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) flirting at a party, their lives filled with possibility, to the now-married Frank awkwardly applauding April, once an aspiring actress, looking defeated at the curtain call of a mediocre community play. We learn that Frank and April moved to suburban Connecticut when she became unexpectedly pregnant, with Frank taking a job at the same business firm his father slaved at for decades. In the first of several brutal arguments in the film, we learn that Frank and April have fallen victim to exactly what most young marrieds fear, the complacency and stagnation they vowed they were above. It's fair to ask whether the book, published in 1961, has any contemporary relevance, and whether we really need another indictment of suburbia. Which is fair, except that's not the point of the book or the movie - it's clear from the start that April and Frank, with their pretensions and arrogant belief that they're better than the people surrounding them, have chosen and doomed themselves to unhappiness. Mendes' snappy, Billy Wilder-influenced sense of mise-en-scene, coupled with the attractive, antiseptic production design (reminiscent of Interiors), invites not comical scorn but understanding - wouldn't it be easier, after all, to just give up?

While Frank reacts by doing the bare minimum at work and screwing a secretary (Zoe Kazan), April is determined to turn her life around, proposing to Frank that they move to Paris (Frank has often complained that Europe is the only place for intelligent people to live), where she'll get a job and support Frank as he figures out what to do with his life. As this plan first renews their passion for each other before going awry, Mendes' cannily exploits our memories of his famous leads (though if I read one more review that says "This time, the iceberg is their marriage," I'll gag). Winslet (whose performance I wrote about in greater detail here) is astonishing as April, juggling a complex range of emotions in the character's increasing anomie. DiCaprio is given perhaps an even more challenging role - while both characters receive plenty of criticism from Yates, the film's April is at least conscious of her own mistakes, while Frank is gradually exposed as a bullshit artist with middling daddy issues - and, to his credit, he commits to playing a severely unlikable character in a performance that recalls Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge. When Frank and April square off, we're reminded of the undeniable chemistry that made Titanic work, and it's quite a thing to see that chemistry turn sour.

Revolutionary Road captures the novel's tragic, somber tone, but what surprises most about the film is its grasp of the book's underlying black comedy. Watching the film, I became increasingly aware of how it depicts the mundane as completely bizarre and grotesque - nosy neighbor Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) is photographed to look like a gorgon, and Frank's alcoholic workmate Jack Ordway (Dylan Baker), with his bizarrely aristocratic accent and strange timing, seems like he could kill everyone in the office at any moment. By the time Mrs. Givings' son John (Michael Shannon) visits from the local mental insitution to offer his two cents to the Wheelers, the film becomes a sort of baroque farce. While it's true that John is a writerly device, a way for Yates to say what the other characters won't, the character works for two reasons. First, Shannon is fearfully good in the role, as much a force of nature as Heath Ledger's Joker. Second, John's not insane - like many of the kids I grew up with, he's been hospitalized for his sensitivity and inability to "play the game." It may be cliche, but the truth is that the suburbs can be a destructive environment for anyone who refuses to settle. If the fights in the film's last half feel melodramatic, it's only because small-town life is punctuated by melodrama and just plain bad drama (as the opening scene suggests). Nobody is better than Mendes at portaying middlebrow banality; if you're sick of middlebrow banality, well, I totally get that, but for this suburb-raised kid, it's good therapy.


MT said...

I worked on this film in production from very early 2007 up until its release. It had a really difficult time behind the scenes with opposing views on what the film should be from all of the producers, directors, editors, and the stars. The turmoil it went through in the production family is very similar to what went on with the Wheeler family in some ways. All in all, the film was pretty good, but I at least think that there were things that ended up being left in previous drafts that should have only been bolstered further. I think it pretty much got what it deserved at the oscars (though it would have been great to see michael shannon take home the award- unlikely- but great) and had its appropriate run all in all.

Anonymous said...

It's okay to like American Beauty: the plastic bag bit is pretentious definitely,but Kevin Spacey also gives a good performance.

Andrew Bemis said...

Mattson: Very interesting, and though I really liked the final product, that sort of explains some of the problems many critics had with the film. Just out of curiosity, whose sensibility does the final movie most reflect?

I actually worked on Mendes' next, unreleased film, and the that set was very relaxed and collaborative. When I read about the plot (which sounds like a lighter, funnier Revolutionary Road), I wondered if Mendes needed a breather. Sounds like that was the case.

That said, a lousy dress rehearsal often means good luck for the play. Once I was talking to a PA who'd just come off a show he described as a beautiful, collaborative experience that was sure to be a masterpiece. The film was Elizabethtown.

Jenny: When I was 16 the plastic bag scene really spoke to me because I believed (perhaps I needed to believe) the idea of a benevolent force underneath everything, even a banal suburban existence (a belief I still sort of carry, but it's changed a great deal). The thing is, at that age I just assumed the filmmaker was always approaching his subject matter with as much sincerity as I was. I still give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, but I wish they'd meet me halfway more often.

MT said...

yeah, it's really funny stuff. that's the egger's comedy project right? sounds about fitting. i suppose it would be worse if they had a Rev-Road production feel for the comedy, and Leo and Kate were all laughs and giggles for 'Road'. Interesting, glad to see not all Mendes' films are run in such a way.