Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mad Kids

Revolutionary Road
DVD via Redbox

Have you noticed? Television is easily outpacing cinema in terms of creating sophisticated, adult drama, and has been for several years now. There are a lot of factors for the change. Partly, it's that studios find marketing films about ideas and not high concepts very difficult. A movie like Transformers 2 might cost $250 million to make, but with the correct advertising approach, it's guaranteed to make $300 million. Because of TV on DVD, On-Demand, and Netflix, cable outlets have a lot more potential revenue streams besides up-front ad sales. That means that it's hardly a setback when a fine piece of television work like AMC's "Breaking Bad" doesn't attract a huge audience in its first season. With the awards and writeups it's now received, the studio and network have a way of profiting from the already-aired first season in a way they didn't several years ago.

Revolutionary Road, a high-profile prestige picture directed by American Beauty's Sam Mendes and centering on two (overrated) A-list Hollywood stars, is impossible to discuss without making the comparisons to "Mad Men." And none of them are flattering. Both are about unhappy bourgeois marriages in the 50's. Both involve a couple who are probably too sensitive and intelligent for the life imposed on them; in both scenarios, the husband finds "acceptable" outlets in affairs and drinks with the boys while the wife is imprisoned by the double standards of the era. It seems unusual to say so, but in this case, the TV actors are grossly superior. Leonardo DiCaprio cannot be taken seriously as a grown man; his voice sounds like that of a cartoon dog and he winds up into curse words like a nun is going to run in from off-camera and clobber him. Winslet can be very good but she isn't here, her housewife plays as self-centered, deluded, and childish. She's hobbled by an odd decision by writer and director to completely ignore the two children the couple are supposed to have. They exist, as a plot difficulty, but they don't have personalities or (hardly any) lines. It's an impossible task for Winslet to seem sympathetic as a full-time mother who is never seen interacting with her children.

The whole cast is filled out with types, rather than supporting characters: the nosy neighbor, her loutish husband, the dorky boss, the compliant mistress. In sharp contrast to "Mad Men" and Mendes' earlier domestic drama, the cast outside of the leads have no hopes or dreams of their own, they only serve to point out to the central couple things that they themselves are too self-obsessed to realize. Michael Shannon has gotten a lot of notice for his very small part as the mentally ill son of older neighbors. He's not really that good (and the role is badly, inconsistently written), it's only that everyone else in the movie is slotted directly into an obvious archetype and this individual stands out starkly in that context.

About two-thirds through, when it becomes clear that the miserable family isn't going to pack up and move their problems to France, Revolutionary Road goes from tolerable to stupid. DiCaprio and Winslet start shouting very obvious movie script lines at each other while Mendes' camera intrusively jams into their faces and then pulls back randomly, sullying the tension and not helping either celebrity with what end up as a pair of trite, shrill, unlikable performances. A smarter movie, one following the inner lives of its cast rather than the life events than define their surfaces, would follow through on the Wheelers moving to France... and then have them fight even more viciously there. Despite Mendes' repeated attempts to create a nightmare visual motif out of the suburban house on the hill where these unhappy people live, it's hard not to watch Revolutionary Road and think that the filmmakers utterly missed the point. These are some unpleasant people, and the film doesn't redeem them -- rather, it cheats, somewhat misogynstically cutting away romantically (and traditionally) from the husband's affairs while Winslet's housewife's degradations are shown in clinical detail.

The big problem with the movie is that the filmmakers feel that these people are significant, that they were meant for more, and situations outside their control led to their lives ending in tragedy. I didn't feel that way at all. He was a jerk, and she was a passive-aggressive mess. There's a spark in Don and Betty Draper (and the younger adman played by Vincent Kartheiser, who's a lot more similar than the effortlessly alpha Jon Hamm to DiCaprio's character, only Kartheiser can act) that nobody in Revolutionary Road touches.

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