Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Family Revolution

I suppose it's the dimmest of observations that though we are social creatures, we are singular entities. Unavoidably and always singular. We interact with others and with the world, but everything exists for us in the perceptions and constructs of our individual minds. And we have only the most limited tools for passing those experiences on to other people. Even those closest to us, our spouses and families, can never really understand what we experience, except to make the assumption that what others feel and experience is like what we know. As Tom Regan puts it in the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, "Nobody knows anybody. Not that well." Pretty garden variety pseudo-philosophy, I know; and yet to the extent we are social creatures, to the extent that our social interactions define us and our species, it shows how really isolated we are.

Yesterday's film was Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road (2008--better late than never). Based on a book by Richard Yates and with a screenplay by Justin Haythe, the film stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank Wheeler, a young couple living in the suburbs of New York in the early '50s. Frank works in the office of a business machine manufacturer in New York City, while April is at home raising the couple's two children. (I give a bit more plot summary here than I usually do, but I'll try not to give too much of the story away.)

The Wheelers are something of a golden couple, the kind of too-beautiful folks for whom life has lined up in rare fashion. It seems this way to everyone who knows them, yes; but this exceptionalism seems also to be a kind of cornerstone of their own senses of self. April is beautiful and self-assured, and she dreams of an extraordinary life despite a pretty mundane, sheltered existence so far (perhaps in reluctant deference to what was expected of women in the '50s). She is drawn to her husband in part because he seems in practice what she feels herself to be in theory. If she thinks she is destined for bigger, better things, she has seen his star in action. He is also dashingly handsome--this is surely part of their "golden couple" allure--but his experiences as a soldier in WWII and his smooth talk, full of high ideas and big plans, convince her that he is a man destined for greatness.

But life has a way of sneaking up on us--our teens and 20s are so quickly gone--and the Wheelers find themselves at age 30 suddenly looking very like everyone else in their neighborhood. April sees herself settling into the Standard American Dream and it feels to her like the surrender of her aspirations. An early mid-life crisis looms. They have a beautiful little house in the suburbs, but the suburb itself is a bedroom community for New York, a collection of houses and people exactly like the Wheelers in most every particular. April stands at the kitchen sink washing the breakfast dishes and sees a stream of breakfasts and lunches and dinners stretching on for years and years, on to old age and a cold hole in the dirt. Frank is essentially a good man who loves his wife but who is maybe too busy being himself to quite grasp that the Standard American Dream of kids and a house in the suburbs is something short of what April had envisioned. After April, who has trained some to be an actress, involves herself in a dreadful local theatre production, the death of this part of her dream--this part of her sense of self, the embrace of the extraordinary--threatens to take a big piece of April with it.

She dreams up a plan of selling everything and moving the entire family to Paris. Frank was in Paris during the war and declared it his favorite place (a place he was "going back to just as soon as I can"), and she has learned that she could work as a highly-paid secretary there. It would be a roll of the dice, an all-in gamble which would force the couple to leave their comfort zone and really live. Frank is at first lukewarm, but with a little persuading he comes to see that her idea has a throbbing vitality about it and he agrees to do it. Preparations begin. The promise and the wonder of the great unknown and the leap into the extraordinary revitalizes their marriage. Maybe this isn't everyone's dream, but most of us have probably clung to something very like it.

But life gets in the way again, and it comes in a couple interesting forms. First, the reaction to the plan by the couple's friends is lukewarm at best. There is surely as much envy at the Wheelers' ability to throw off the shackles that have manacled them all as there is genuine misgiving about the practicality of the plan, but regardless there's not much support. The couple's real estate agent and friend Mrs. Givings (played by Kathy Bates) brings her son Bart (Michael Shannon) over for a visit during one of his brief releases from a psychiatric hospital where he is undergoing electric shock treatment for some unspecified psychological malady. Bart is a genius and mathematician, someone who appears to see and grasp everything around him but he is unable to filter his thoughts. He rather quickly sniffs out the weak points in the Wheelers' plans and is incapable of not voicing his observations. (This is an interesting plot detail, the omniscient-thru-madness character who gets to say aloud what everyone is maybe thinking but would not be so rude as to actually say.)

The second roadblock to the big plan comes from Frank's job. Frank tosses off an idea one night as he is leaving the office that unexpectedly impresses the hell out of the big bosses, who line him up for a big promotion and raise. This complicates the decision to leave his job for a life of unemployment (his friends remind him that he will disgracefully have to be "kept" since there are no job prospects for him in Paris). Part of April's rationale for moving to Paris is because Frank's job is soul-sucking and beneath his greatness, characteristics of which Frank seems unaware until he is told. But now the new job offer seems to promise less mundanity for Frank--though crucially it offers nothing for April that she doesn't already have.

And the last bump in the road (sorry) is April's discovery that she is pregnant. This revelation forces the realization that she sees her children as much as a burden as a source of joy. She does not want another child, especially if having it would put their Paris plans in jeopardy. Her description of how they find themselves at present with two children--that she "got pregnant and then we had another to prove the first one wasn't a mistake,"--turns Frank's family world on its ear. At this moment especially we sense that April is clinging to the Paris move very desperately indeed.

How much of this story will ring true for so many of us? Isn't it a tenet of America's celebration of the individual and the sky's-the-limit promise of our culture that everyone has the potential and opportunity to do great things? What kid didn't dream of being President or an Astronaut or a great scientist or a famous traveler? And yet how many of us--billions and billions of times over--are born to promise and live and die in all our teeming numbers in virtual anonymity? How many big dreams are followed by existences most ordinary?

The character of April Wheeler (along with Bart Givings and his mother) forces us to ask where the insanity really is in this whole setup. We are made to ask where happiness lies and to think about looking backward from the future and assessing how the unfolding of our lives will look then. I suppose this is not an exercise for everyone. People are not wrong to want a stable, comfortable existence, and surely having children is for most people the most rewarding and gratifying thing in their lives. But this is one way for a life to go, and neither is it wrong to strive for something other than this--better, worse; just other. (I'm reminded of the lovely speech given by Armin Mueller-Stahl's character in The International: "We cannot control the things life does to us. They are done before you know it, and once they are done they make you do other things, until at last everything comes between you and the man you wanted to be.")

From a craft perspective, the movie is lovely. It captures the period nicely without reconstructing any large scenes--it's mostly a few interiors. The acting is all quite lovely, especially the two leads. DiCaprio has an easy insouciance but with a hint of broodiness that gives him some depth. But he plays anguish well. Kate Winslet (who is married to, but separated from, director Mendes) I like very much, and she hits her marks here as a woman trying to meet society's expectations while battling an inner turmoil. Mendes could not have cast better, I think.

The film has a soundtrack by Thomas Newman, who among his other films did the soundtrack for one of my favorites (also by Sam Mendes), Road to Perdition. I identified the composer's work right away, and the main themes sound exactly like those in Perdition. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--the music is lovely and melancholy and evocative--but the sameness to one of my favorite films rather surprised me. I think I'll still buy the soundtrack. The movie has a very Coen Brothers ending--not to say it ends with a surprise or a big twist; it doesn't. But like so many good stories there are several threads we might follow, and the ending draws us perhaps away from the obvious.

I recommend it, though I didn't find it fun to watch exactly. There is a good deal of tension throughout the story, which is either one's bag or not. But it's a passionate and very thought-provoking story wonderfully told.

Grade: A-

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

As you say, there is no denying the art of this movie. I thought it was superbly cast and Mendes' direction was flawless. Winslet and Leo are two of my favorite actors and this finds them at the top of their craft. The combination of all these things along with the cinematography and set design does a great job of evoking the seeds of suburban malaise. Back then, I think people thought this was the height of civilization, but as the last 40 years have shown, it was perhaps the end. Cookie-cutter houses, cookie-cutter lives. Great if you just want to fit in, but not so great if you have any soul whatsoever. April is not quite ready to be a Stepford wife.

All that being said, the movie still left me a little wanting. I'd rate it a strong B. And my criticism is not necessarily because it is almost universally depressing. I love plenty of movies that are. I'm not sure I can even put my finger on why it didn't completely resonate with me.