January 24, 2009
Caution: Spoilers ahead...
If you don't care about spoilers since you don't plan on seeing this film, please stop reading right now, go to fandango.com and get tickets for the next showing. In fact, the theater closest to me has one starting in ten. And it has some fabulous retro fashion. Go.
Revolutionary Road is a movie that intrigued me at first because of its two phenomenal stars, two of my favorite thespians and some of the best actors of our generation, Kate and Leo. It is based on the novel by Richard Yates, in which Frank and April Wheeler fall into a classic New York cliche: they are young single city kids who meet at a party in a friend's crowded pre-war apartment. They fall in love, get married, and promptly move to the Connecticut suburbs after their first baby is born. Frank continues work at a faceless, generic office building in Manhattan and screws a secretary after lunch martinis, and April stays home planting flowers, chain smoking and taking care of the kids and house.
Frank and April fall out of love, probably for a combination of reasons: a lack of lifelong compatibility, Frank's lack of drive to pursue any sort of passion, April's striking boredom with her suburban cell, and the presence of two children it seems neither of them wanted in the first place. "We had a second child to prove the first one wasn't an accident. Do you really want another child, Frank?"
April comes up with an exodus plan as a last-ditch effort to create some action and extraordinary change for the family: move to Paris, where April will work as a secretary and Frank will finally have the time to figure out not only what he wants, but who he is. All the neighbors and coworkers are stunned by this plan, except Kathy Bates' psych ward-bound son, John. As a tried-and-true literary and cinematic device, John seems to be the only person on Revolutionary Road speaking actual truth.
After two quick rolls in the hay (or should we say... roll in the Buick and bump on the linoleum countertop - the first with her neighbor and the second with Frank), April finds out she is pregnant, and at her suggestion of an abortion, Frank says "any sane woman would never think of such a thing." The Paris plan has fallen through, though Crazy John is quick to ask, "What? They don't have babies in Europe?"
There are points of such vile insults and heartless accusations between Frank and April that I was amazed neither one killed the other. It's a disturbing and shocking display of what happened to a couple that used to be charmingly in love. I was stunned by April's indifference to Frank's affair, and Frank's casual manner with which he told her he "had a girl a couple times." Is it possible for two people in love to grow that far apart, so violently and in what was likely less than 10 years? What circumstances could cause two people to sleep with others for revenge, go running into the woods out of a desperate desire for escaping their own house, to tell each other "fuck who you like"?
The story ends tragically... I don't want to totally give it away, but April's attempt at escape from normalcy was her demise. The film's last scene shows Frank watching the children on swings in a city park. It appears he can't watch them without thinking of April, and no doubt does he have remorse for how their love story spiraled into a mean-spirited power play and how her .
What did I get out of Revolutionary Road? Like Sam Mendes' other great film, American Beauty, which also chronicled white-bread suburbia, Revolutionary Road makes me cringe at the idea of marriage while also making me vow to never waste another day making decisions because they are comfortable. Most of all, it makes me wonder why we create conventions for ourselves to follow, whether we want to or not?
If Frank and April wanted to raise children in the city... why not? They wanted to move to Paris... why not? Lester Burnham sold his Camry for a vintage Firebird... why not? Why is it seemingly unacceptable to stray from a certain formula with life? Why do we feel obliged to sign a piece of paper that legally binds us to another person for life, then propagate the species in a split ranch, a comfortable distance from the noise and dirt of the big city? Why do we fear discomfort in taking on a different lifestyle?
Don't get me wrong - my parents are pretty happily married, and my youth in suburban Connecticut was enjoyable. I turned out pretty normal. And I value my family so completely that I have a hard time imagining that I won't have one of my own someday. And I admire happily married couples so much, for their passion and hard work. But why does everyone have to try to change themselves to try to fit into that plan? Like Carrie Bradshaw asked once: "Do we really want marriage and houses and babies? Or, are we just programmed?"
Even if you think my musings are pure drivel, I implore you to see Revolutionary Road. The acting is impeccable. Kate and Leo achieve character development that is so deep and complex, I want to see the film again to try to figure them out more. The Wheelers' neighbor Millie is so unfailingly conventional and upbeat that you know she has to be on antidepressants; the realtor's whackjob son steals each scene he appears in, and even Frank's other woman and equally empty cube-mates contribute to the feeling of entrapment and boredom. I also want to buy the book so I can delve further into the story.
What's the point? I'm not sure there's only one. Surely we're supposed to do what makes us happy, regardless of social opinion. Surely we shouldn't bring children into a turbulent household which is brimming with resentment. Surely we shouldn't be afraid to take chances and think outside the cubicle. But the question remains: Are we brave enough to do that?