Richard Yates’s excellent 1961 novel Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young 1950s couple with two kids whose marriage disintegrates after they relocate to the Connecticut suburbs, their disgust with their environment, their chosen paths in life, each other, and themselves eventually bringing about ruin. Sam Mendes’s cinematic version of Yates’s work hews closely to this structure while also evoking recent pop-culture touchstones, reuniting Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the doomed spouses, recalling, in its authentic portrayal of its ‘50s milieu, AMC’s Mad Men, and evoking, via its depiction of cheery middle-class suburbia and the turmoil lurking underneath, the director’s unjustly heralded debut American Beauty.
Such suggestions do little to interfere with Mendes’s literary translation, which on the face of things is formal, technically proficient and earnestly, intensely performed. Nonetheless, it’s also a dispiriting bust as both an adaptation and (to a slightly lesser degree) as a standalone film, betraying Yates’s book in fundamental ways and turning what once stood as a textured parable about the American Dream into a shrill, shallow series of Important Speeches and theatrical histrionics.
In basic terms, Yates’s tale revolves around Frank and April’s misery over having bought into a model vision of the nuclear family, and the violence they enact against each other as a means of expressing their discontent. Revolutionary Road gets at this dynamic, yet from the outset, simplifies so severely that it drains the plot of its essential, troubling subtext. Bored nine-to-fiver Frank (DiCaprio) and homemaker April (Winslet) think they’re better than their surroundings yet fear they’re becoming the cookie-cutter white-picket-fence dimbulbs they condescendingly loathe. This feeling leads to mutual resentment and hatred as well as to a desire to escape, which comes in the form of April’s idea that they abandon their unhappy lives and move, two barely considered kids in tow, to Paris, where they can live out a blissful reverie in which April plays the breadwinner and Frank devotes his energies toward finding his true calling. Mendes establishes this scenario with measured faithfulness, aided by a script that hits nearly every one of Yates’s significant lines of dialogue. However, like Roger Deakins’s lovely cinematography, which excessively fixates on the oppressively sterile surfaces of Frank’s office and the Wheeler home (and life), the director, working from Justin Haythe’s broad-stroke script, thoroughly flattens his thoughtful source material to the point of facileness.
Mendes’s first, most crucial mistake is to buy what the Wheelers are selling—namely, that they once loved each other, that their corroding relationship can be largely blamed on their conformist suburban existence, and that, in the case of April, the dream of Parisian escape and freedom is not only sincere but also feasible. This last fact brutally lopsides the central conflict, transforming April into more of a passive, innocent victim, with her quest for a better, more satisfying life undone by Frank’s successful efforts to squash their overseas plans. Mendes chooses sides rather than fully developing the couple’s original, twisted bonds, aided by his elimination of April’s backstory and handling of Frank’s problematic daddy issues through a few cursory conversations. In turn, Revolutionary Road saps its central duo of their coarse, warped complexity, lazily placing the blame for the Wheelers’ collapse on their move to the suburbs rather than hewing to Yates’s more prickly position that the two are (at least until April’s courageous, too-little-too-late decision) equally self-delusional chickenshits, both content to embrace and assume the most convenient, comfortable roles afforded by a given situation lest they be forced to honestly attempt to understand who they really are.
Revolutionary Road certainly makes clear that this type of self-analysis is Frank’s stated intention for relocating to the City of Lights. Yet without the underlying facet of incessant, destructive role-playing that defines each character in Yates’s book (nor the vital, complicating interior thoughts and monologues that imbue Frank and April with dense, screwed-up, alternately sympathetic and loathsome humanity), the film seems to miss the larger point that the Wheelers’ tragedy isn’t in squandering their exceptionality, nor is it in their misconception that they were special in the first place. No, it’s that they don’t know whether they’re exceptional or not because they are, at heart, strangers to themselves. Such a factor would seem hard to miss in Yates’s tale, yet astoundingly, Haythe’s script manages to include nearly every momentous remark from its source save for the one that would make this thematic detail explicit, in which April, immediately following a rash bit of infidelity with doofy, good-natured neighbor Shep Campbell (David Harbour), muses, “You see I don’t know who I am.”
Missing the forest for the trees, however, is indicative of Mendes’s film, which dutifully reproduces incidents and particulars while only rarely glancing at the underlying element of self-deception, of acting a part, that defines said moments. This rears its head early, when Frank engages in an affair with office secretary Maureen Grube (Zoe Kazan), a tryst that Mendes posits as spurred solely by cocky, smarmy Frank rather than as the byproduct of both participants’ need to embody various roles: he the dashing, mature man (machismo being Frank’s pressing paternal-related fixation), she the alluring grown-up. Such streamlining robs scenarios of their depth, but worse, it reconfigures their actual meaning. At no juncture is this more pronounced than the penultimate scene, in which Shep, tired of listening to his wife Milly (Kathryn Hahn) retell the Wheeler saga to new neighbors, departs the living room for the backyard. Whereas in the novel Shep’s stimulus is his disgust for Milly, whose pleasure at theatrically recounting (and disingenuously embellishing) this sordid tale reeks of falseness, Mendes here casts Shep as merely depressed over his beloved April’s pitiable fate, a change that’s not simply a simplification but a wholesale dumbing-down of Yates’s story, a stripping away of intricacy in favor of patness.
Mendes’s general elimination of characters’ history, as well as his inability to get inside their heads, downgrades Revolutionary Road to a thirtysomething Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? padded out with innumerable portentous declarations that, often devoid of proper context, land with a thud. The most disappointing of these spew forth from John Givings (a borderline-great Michael Shannon), the mentally unstable son of neighbor Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) who twice visits the Wheelers, at first praising their decision to escape the “hopeless emptiness” of the suburbs, then condemning them for wimping out. Only very meekly (via Dylan Baker’s alcoholic co-worker of Frank’s) does Mendes’s bloodless film take the extra step to suggest Paris as merely the latest cowardly fantasy employed by the Wheelers to avoid grappling with their limits, and thus it ultimately endorses the very irony—namely, that crazy John Givings is actually the only sane voice around—that Yates treats more ambiguously.
Considering that their characters are never given more than two dimensions, their knotty motivations abridged for storytelling purposes, DiCaprio and Winslet’s fiery, committed performances unavoidably come to feel hollow, their screams and tears and fists-banged-against-automobile-roofs seeming like poses struck to replicate the letter, rather than the spirit, of Yates’s prose. Such reductiveness is perhaps inevitable given the necessities of literary adaptations, but it nonetheless turns out to be the real, rending tragedy of this Revolutionary Road.