Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My Fake Life: The Utter Failure of "Revolutionary Road"

By Lars Trodson

When couples get to that place where they begin to despise each other, when they’ve run out of things to pick at each other about, the only thing left to critique is the physical: the body, the hair, the clothes.

If “Revolutionary Road”, newly out on DVD, had any connection to reality -- which it decidedly does not -- then Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Frank Wheeler would have had a field day with his wife’s voice.

I don’t know where Kate Winslet came up with this thing, but the strangulation you hear in her dire American pronunciation seems to have choked off the rest of her body. “Fronk”, April Wheeler says to her husband in what is more air than sound. There’s a reason she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this film, and it wasn’t because this was a great performance that was overlooked. After a while I wanted to drive thin steel needles into my eyes rather than listen to any more of her braying.

There are few movies as emotionally dishonest as this one. My pet peeves -- “The Big Chill”, “Forrest Gump” (ack!), “St. Elmo’s Fire” and, yes, “American Beauty” -- now have a new rival for sheer ridiculousness.

How anyone liked this movie -- from its first disingenuous frame to the last wheeze of preposterousness -- is a true mystery. You really wonder how anyone could have looked at that film and said, yes, this is art. Even the studio execs must have watched the film and hoped that the teenagers who fell in love with those free spirits in “Titanic” more than a decade ago would be so desperate to see Kate and Leo together again that the movie they were in wouldn’t actually matter.

Speaking of “Titanic”, I think maybe Sam Mendes knew his vision of this movie was so bankrupt that he took the time to insert a tiny homage to his wife Kate’s earlier blockbuster.

In “Revolutionary Road”, April Wheeler commits adultery with her neighbor in a car outside a tavern they were drinking at. They’re making love in the car, and as the man gets on top of her he slams his open hand against the car window behind her. The gesture seemed so unnatural -- it isn’t anything anyone would do -- that it jumped into my head that Mendes was making a visual reference to the famous moment in “Titanic” when Kate and Leo finally did it and her open hand slams against the steamed up window of the car they were in.

Maybe it’s just me, and I was seeing things, but I doubt it. Then again, I was looking for anything to entertain myself at this point.

I know that the story of Richard Yates is a sad one, and I know this novel was not well received when it was published in 1961, but it doesn’t negate the fact that this was pretty thin gruel to begin with.

I never understood the Wheeler’s plight -- they always seemed more of a novelist’s vision of a suburban couple than any one you would actually know -- and despite the exactness of Yates’s prose, I also never understood why they or any one else would think the Wheelers were so special.

April wants to be an actress, yet clearly doesn’t have the talent for it. And nothing Frank ever does or says indicates that the world would be better off if we all knew about him.

Their desire to flee suburbia -- in this case a pretty well-heeled subdivision in Connecticut -- is wholly based on a poet’s notion that this kind of existence is inherently hellish. It isn’t. I just drove to my parent’s house in a neighborhood more or less like the one in “Revolutionary Road” -- it is the same house I grew up in -- and there was nothing stifling or deadening about that place.

And when the movie version was released, I wondered who would relate to this story. Movies are more devoted than ever to appealing to the common denominator, so you’d think that a movie that critiques suburban life would have a pretty small audience. Coupled with the fact that a nice leafy house in Connecticut would seem like a pretty good dream to most.

So I think the success of this was resting on the formidable shoulders of our two leads. As much as I like these two -- I’m pretty much a fan of each -- it was disheartening to see them so out of the scope of their own experience.

Both of them may have known heartache, and disappointment, and even failure, to be sure, but I don’t think either one of them has a clue about the endless days and nights of sameness that does kill so many dreams. Neither of them has known what it is like to go into the same office every day, in some cases for years, to work at something that you don’t love while also knowing that it certainly does not love you back.

You can see Kate and Leo floundering here -- relying on acting tics to get them through. They know nothing about the terror of the anonymous and quiet desperation so many people feel; they have no empathy, no bond. I almost, for a second, felt sorry for them, which is the worst thing you can ever feel for an actor.

At then end of the movie, Frank Wheeler is sitting in what is supposed to Central Park, watching his kids play. He’s sitting on a bench, and the trees are in bloom. Tiny sections of the facades of some old magnificent New York apartment building peek through the leaves ever so slightly. It is a measure of the movie that I was looking at the background rather than at the actors. And, suddenly, I thought -- are those buildings real, or were they digitally inserted? I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet money the shot was faked. Fake Central Park. Fake buildings. Fake acting.

Fake movie. What a shame.