If you haven’t seen a Hollywood drama since the early ’60s, you might be under the impression that in suburbia, everything is sweetness and light, and the rows of identical houses full of ticky tacky are inhabited by the shiny happy people enjoying their Pleasant Valley Sundays. But if you’ve seen The Swimmer, or The Graduate, or American Beauty, you might have an inkling that they are just as miserable as everyone else.
I’m being needlessly harsh on Sam Mendes’s new film Revolutionary Road, based on a groundbreaking novel by Richard Yates, because 46 years later the story is still very powerful but sort of predictable and hackneyed, held up only by the performances of its leads. The opening is excellent- we go from the night they met at a bohemian party in Manhattan and found a spark of passion, to the middle of a marriage in discord; April (Kate Winslet) has just performed in a lackluster play, and her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is taking her home, and making it very clear just what he thought of it. Frank works for an IBM-clone, just a cog in the corporate machine; April raises their two children at home. Both have betrayed their dreams and moved to suburban Connecticut, because that’s what “you’re supposed to do” when you settle down and have kids.
They’re driving each other crazy, so April suggests that they sell the house, take their savings, and move to Paris, where she can support them doing secretarial work while Frank figures out what he wants to do- and isn’t trapped in a mind-numbing office job. They tell their neighbors, who think they’re being silly. The woman who sold them their house, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates, excellent as usual) finds it “whimsical” and is disappointed; she was trying to get them to befriend her troubled son, because they seemed so “grounded.” But of course they can’t break the shackles of conformity, no matter how hard they try, and shatter like rockets they just couldn’t reach escape velocity.
The acting was phenomenal, but for me it always felt like I was watching suburbanites in a clever diorama. At times it felt like a stage play, and other times like a camera in a zoo. One problem for me was that as a fan of the TV show “Mad Men,” I’ve seen this era portrayed in great detail, by excellent actors, with characters similarly bound by the rules of the times. This reminded me of Mendes’s American Beauty, which had hackneyed and pandering concepts uplifted by a few excellent performances. I can’t fault Yates, for he wrote a great story- it’s just not portrayed that well. Their children seem like furniture. Affairs are treated as expected, and we don’t see enough of the dream they lost to see what they’re missing.
I fully expect Kate Winslet to be nominated for the Oscar; not sure if she should win, I haven’t seen Rachel Getting Married yet. She’s fantastic, as she watches her dream die and makes great sacrifice to try to keep it alive. Leo does well, but I’m sorry, he was too boyish for this part. He looks like a mad little boy smashing furniture. Sure, they wanted to get the Titanic twins (and Kathy Bates) back together again, but I don’t think he was the best choice for this part. Dylan Baker (Happiness) is perfect as one of his fellow office drones, though.
It’s one of the better dramas, but flawed. It kept me engaged, and the performances will grip you, but you can see what’s coming. And you’ve seen these dreams crushed before. Rent Mad Men, and maybe read Yates’s book. Sam Mendes needs to stop filming suburbia in this cold manner, when it’s been done better by Todd Field, with the excellent film Little Children.
4 out of 5 petulant frenzies.
The highly anticipated return of the series Mad Men finally pulled me in- the show is set in the early 60’s in the legendary era of the martini lunch. Set in a high-power ad agency, it reminds me of the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, with the subversiveness of Douglas Sirk, and 20/20 hindsight of Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven. “Mad Men” was the self-imposed nickname that the Madison Avenue crew gave themselves, and they live up to the title.
The series concentrates on Donald Draper, a top ad executive working in New York City in the early 60’s. The show has gotten many accolades for its realism in recreating the look and feel of the era, from the skinny ties and slim suits to the well-coiffed women in office and home. Everyone smokes and drinks like mad, office liaisons are commonplace, every man is a cad with a piece on the side, and woman chafe at the societal boundaries that still corral them.
Don is in his mid-30’s and has younger men nipping at his heels, but he is still the big dog; though he often lies tortured on the couch before getting a brainstorm that comes up with the perfect ad campaign. The ad industry was just on the cusp of using known psychological concepts to market products as a lifestyle, and Don rejects it, though when he comes up with concepts on his own, they are certainly crafted as if by a head shrinker; he just doesn’t link the two yet.
What reminded me of the excellent Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven was not only the technicolor look of the show, but the update to Douglas Sirk’s brilliant subversiveness. In Sirk’s classics All That Heaven Allows, Rock Hudson is the artistic and freethinking bachelor who Jane Wyman falls in love with, to the disdain of society and even her own children; in his remake of Imitation of Life, two single women, one black and one white, meet and manage to succeed; the black woman’s daughter passes for white and is ashamed of her mother. He skirted what was considered acceptable and there was always the suggestion of things still labeled taboo; in Far From Heaven, Haynes goes that extra step and lets us see what Sirk might have done, unfettered.
In “Mad Men,” society still has taut reins of conformity around its neck, and we see even the paragon of 60’s manhood Don Draper (Jon Hamm) chomping at the bit, though he hides it quite well. The women are more fascinating than the men, in how they consolidate what little power is left to be had. Joan (Christina Hendricks) the office manager, a buxom redhead with wits to match her … wiles, is the de facto alpha female; Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), the newcomer in the first episode, has clawed her way into copywriting by the beginning of season two, after some trials and tribulations I’ll leave you to discover. The men have their own problems; they live hard and it affects their home life. Super-cad Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) doesn’t think he makes enough to support a child yet, and his new wife is tortured by the bouncing babies throughout their social circle.
“Mad Men” is able to show us a side of the mythical 50’s and 60’s that even Sirk couldn’t allude to, and it makes for riveting viewing. The first season is available On Demand with some cable providers (even in HD) and the show plays Sunday nights at 10pm EST for the DVR-deprived.