Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

(Catching up on titles that I haven't covered in the last few months).

This one strikes me as a good example of a film that knows the words, but not the music, of its source material. Director Sam Mendes has made a very highly-crafted film - gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins, pretty good score from Thomas Newman, and the best performances I've seen from either Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet in years.

The movie is entertaining and handsome, but it's also a little bit like a butterfly under glass. In making the translation from book to screen, the story's basic story elements are all faithfully reproduced and literalized, but nothing has been added in the process, only taken away. Gone are the internal monologues (angry, self-deceiving) from Frank Wheeler that made up so much of the real guts of the Yates book, the bitter tone, the subtexts of theatricality and inter-spousal manipulation. Most importantly, the movie lacks the context of Frank and April Wheeler's younger days, the sense of freedom and possibility that, in the novel, makes their later decisions to compromise all the more painful. What's on screen is the skeleton of the plot, animated by the Oscar-pedigree craft on display, the basic 'what-happens-next' of storytelling. It works, but there's not a lot left over to chew on afterward - it's semi-pre-digested Oscarbait.

It makes me think that director Sam Mendes probably didn't really have much of a vision for making the source material his own, beyond just plopping the book on-screen as is, which is in keeping with the other films in his career. Road to Perdition and Jarhead were both similarly glossy, tasteful films without much pulse or resonance (although I'll at least give Jarhead credit for having an dreamy sort of eerieness to it - but it still rests in the shadow of Full Metal Jacket). And more and more I think that the success of American Beauty, the one Mendes film I'll still stand up for - rests on the Alan Ball screenplay, which, while sometimes messy and sometimes corny, still has a sense of humor and pathos - of unembalmed life - not found in any of the Mendes movies since.

Still, Revolutionary Road is enjoyable enough for an acting showcase. Quick confession: I finished reading the book very shortly before going to see the movie, and I'm sure that's impacted my opinion of the film - but I think that it's just helped me understand the elements missing from the film, which would have felt lacking no matter what.


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