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We tend to forget this about them, given the stellar careers they've built for themselves as adults, but most of us first met Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio aboard the most popular doomed ship of all time, Titanic. This is not an irrelevant bit of trivia in the background of their new movie, Revolutionary Road. Even if you've wiped away all memories of Titanic, sworn it off as trash, you and the rest of the world have seen this couple's courtship. And as Frank and April Wheeler, a couple as realistic and miserable as Jack and Rose were carefree fantasies, Winslet and DiCaprio, bearing crow's feet and fuller faces, have twice the capacity of any to break your heart.
It helps a lot that the movie, directed by American Beauty phenom Sam Mendes, is very, very good in its own right. But it was special casting brilliance to make Winslet and DiCaprio the Wheelers, the "golden couple" of their specific universe, whose dissolution is just that much harder to accept for themselves. The pair gives commanding, emotionally raw performances that make up the heart of a film that, not nearly as cynically as the novel it is based on, sears to the heart of where the American Dream probably ended.
With master cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes has recreated 1950s suburban Connecticut as still and verdant, a forbiddingly placid pond. Frank and April aren't the only unhappy ones, as we learn through quiet moments with supporting characters, but their disappointment is so immense they've no choice but to turn on each other. Seven years into their marriage they've memorized each others weaknesses, opening the film with a roadside argument that's unbearably vicious. Each of them once fancied themselves citified intellectuals, and treated their move to the suburbs-- seen in a single flashback-- as a kind of grand ironic adventure. But seven years later they've settled into lives neither of them wanted, but neither knows how to escape-- Frank in a low-level position at the same machine tooling company that rendered his father an anonymous gray flannel suit, and April a lonely and despairing housewife.
On his 30th birthday Frank impulsively starts an affair with office secretary Maureen (Zoe Kazan), a naive girl who falls for his false masculine bravado. He arrives home and is moved to tears by the birthday greeting from his wife and children, then blindsided by April's big idea to escape. They'll move to Paris, she'll get a job, and he'll finally figure out what he really wants to do with his life-- something we know, even at this early stage, he will probably never find. Their plans to move away disappoint their earnest friends Millie (Kathryn Hahn) and Shep (David Harbour), as well as neighborhood gossip Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates), but the Paris dream gives them a summer of marital bliss they haven't known in years. But the dream, of course, is just that, and as the moving date moves closer both Frank and April confront their own terrors both of changing, and the knowledge that nothing really ever changes after all.
Blazing through all this like an aggressive Cassandra is John Givings (Michael Shannon), Mrs. Givings' mental patient son whom she hopes will benefit from Frank and April's genteel presence. He derides them and their classy lifestyle from the beginning, and when Frank jokes that Paris will help them escape the "hopelessness and emptiness" of the suburbs, John points out that it's not joke. His ability to see through Frank and April's bullshit further divides them, April recognizing John's brashness as truth, and Frank further retreating to the safe comfort of the life he thought he wanted to escape.
Adapted as it is from a novel that spends huge sections inside its characters' heads, it's remarkable how well Revolutionary Road is able to capture the same truths about its characters. Small gestures take on huge significance, entire series of emotions wash across a face within seconds-- all of the actors, from Winslet and DiCaprio down to Kazan, work together beautifully to externalize a story that's all about what's never said. Frank and April lay it all out in their screaming matches, but the real story is in the moment Frank's face breaks during their fight, or the suspiciously even tone in April's voice when she prepares him breakfast the night after a blowout. Hahn and Harbour are especially great at this, given their limited scenes, and perhaps it's because Shannon's performance is the most external that I was less impressed than others have been, though duly overwhelmed by his mesmerizing character.
While not quite reaching the masterpiece level of Yates' novel-- was that even possible?--Revolutionary Road is the rare classy literary adaptation with a beating heart, a cry of sorrow for Frank and April's despair as much as it is a sly deconstruction of all they hold dear. Vital and brilliant, without American Beauty's occasional pretension, it's a shot in the arm for the dull holiday season, a shattering experience well worth having.