This is the week that movies playing the Oscar-nomination game have to put up or shut up. The nominations are revealed on Jan. 22, and movies with lofty ambitions need to be in theaters by then to gain traction. If they get nominations, people already know where they’re playing. And if they don’t, they’ve at least had a week to try to build local word-of-mouth to survive.
Revolutionary Road, based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates about a ruinously disaffected suburban couple in Eisenhower-era America, has a phenomenal performance by Kate Winslet and a very good one by Leonardo DiCaprio, who struggles just a little to make his character’s angry explosions seem as natural as hers. There are also fine supporting turns, especially one by Michael Shannon as a tormented, disturbed young man who might be an unsettling truth-teller.
While the movie might be too downbeat for many Oscar nominations, all three actors are possibilities — along with Kathy Bates as a nosy realtor and Shannon’s mother.
This is not the sentimental romanticism of the two lead actors’ Titanic. In fact, it is much harder-edged and much less compassionate than its director Sam Mendes’ previous American Beauty, which mixed humor and a hallucinatory dreaminess into its similar tragic theme.
Winslet (who is also Mendes’ real-life wife) and DiCaprio are April and Frank Wheeler, who meet — as the film, with an adapted screenplay by Justin Haythe, begins — at a party where they’re young and happy with life’s possibilities. She wants to be an actress; he seems supportive of the adventurous, artistic life. The film moves quickly to them as married couple, living in a spacious home on a conformist suburban street in Connecticut called, with bitter irony, Revolutionary Road.
Frank, wearing conservative business suits, sells office machines in a New York firm where his father once worked. He is both bored by it and good at it — and especially good at long alcohol-fueled lunches and at seducing a temp secretary (a touching Zoe Kazan). April, meanwhile, unhappily stays home with her children and tries to envision ways to salvage her life — moving to Paris is her dream.
While she at first seems to elicit Frank in this quixotic adventure, we know that the suburban life that pains her is too easy and rewarding for him to give up for bohemianism. It leads to a climactic scene devastating in its melancholy, anguished beauty and fatalistically lachrymose tone.
Revolutionary Road, compressed as it is into a too-short and too-intense feature film, suffers in comparison to television’s Mad Men, which explores similar themes in far more depth. But it nevertheless at its best hauntingly depicts the uncomfortable and sad side of a family — and an era. Grade: B
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