Uncoupling in the '50s suburbs

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Wheelers, who seem to outsiders to be a golden pair. In reality, they are unfulfilled and quarrelsome.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Wheelers, who seem to outsiders to be a golden pair. In reality, they are unfulfilled and quarrelsome.

Frank and April thought they and their marriage were special. They were sadly mistaken.

Posted: January 02, 2009

A cascade of blond hair, an exhalation of cigarette smoke, the promise of erotic bliss. That's how April (Kate Winslet) first appears to Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Revolutionary Road. Sam Mendes' devastating if flawed adaptation of the Richard Yates novel is, in part, the pipe dream of a gypsy who marries an admirer and sets up camp in the Connecticut suburbs of the 1950s.

When the tobacco is extinguished what comes between April and Frank Wheeler is bigger, colder and more formidable than the iceberg that sundered Kate and Leo in Titanic: shattered hope.

To outsiders over coffee or cocktails, April and Frank are a golden couple possessed of deep beauty and deeper feelings. But the pair who ordered a special life and got delivered an ordinary one are in fact unfulfilled, numb, given to declamations like "I want to feel things, really feel things." The only time they do is when they hurl accusations and ashtrays at each other. (During Wheeler face-offs, the children are conveniently elsewhere.)

Their Technicolor dreams - she was to be a great actress but has failed in community theater, he was to be Somebody but is an Everyman - have given way to khaki reality, hauntingly captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins in shades of putty and greige.

Like the title of the film, which refers to the conformist suburban street on which the Wheelers buy a house "perkily" sited on a sloping lawn, the characters' names are a touch ironic. Frank is not very candid, April no longer springlike.

He commutes to Manhattan, one in a gray wave of business suits, to work at a business-machines corporation where under fluorescent lights faceless men in fedoras pretend to work but are really nursing hangovers. As Mendes frames them in the relentless geometry of offices laid out like graph paper, they are not Mad Men but Sad Men.

Back in Connecticut, she folds laundry, pares potatoes, and dreams of Paris, where Frank - billeted there during wartime - said he felt most alive. Like many a character in 20th-century American novels from Dodsworth to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, April mistakenly assumes that the current of emotional electricity is more intense Over There. Failing to recognize that a change of outside place will not change what's lacking inside the marriage, she proposes that the family decamp for Paris where Frank can find himself and they can rediscover each other. At the prospect of being sprung from what she calls her "trap," April reclaims her color, donning a turquoise sheath, bohemian amid the bourgeois shirtwaists.

Winslet, photographed most glamorously (Mendes is her husband), wrestles heroically with the role of April, a woman trying to accept her role as homemaker while yearning for a place in the wider world. Winslet plays April at the extremes of the emotional spectrum, either in complete control or completely out of control, a woman stifled and denied and projecting her own dissatisfaction onto her spouse. It is a seismic performance, one with aftershocks.

DiCaprio, eyebrows dancing like musical notes along a furrowed staff of forehead, is searingly good as a man unmanned by his wife's intensity and his own lack thereof. This is not, as some observers say, a portrait of the sterile suburbs like Mendes' American Beauty; this is the chronicle of a misalliance, unsuccessfully renegotiated.

Mendes shoots the movie in long takes that intensify the drama but have the unintentional effect of making his film a series of theatrical tableaux. While David Harbour is achingly good as the neighbor who idolizes the Wheelers, other supporting players - who include Kathy Bates as a chatty real estate broker and Michael Shannon as her clinically unstable son, the film's madman savant - sound tinny in what is an otherwise resonant scenario.

Revolutionary Road ***

Directed by Sam Mendes, With Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, David Harbour and Michael Shannon. Distributed by DreamWorks.

Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.

Parents' guide: R (profanity, brief nudity, sexual and surgical candor)

Playing at: Ritz East and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ

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