There’s something about American suburbia that American cinema loves to hate, or at least give a dig in the ribs. The camera will pan in on the clean, airy spaciousness and obvious signs of prosperity, but the next minute, terrible things are always happening in the burbs: man-eating houses (“Amityville Horror”), serial murders (“Helter Skelter”), bloody divorce cases (“War of the Roses”) teen suicides (“Virgin Suicides”).
Perhaps Hollywood feels that it’s OK for bad stuff to pop up in the city — it’s only to be expected. But when tragedy occurs in an upscale neighborhood, it sort of gives a sage nod and says “ah.” Violence amid the white porch furniture and manicured lawns always works, blood stains on the wall-to-wall carpeting never goes out of style. And if gratuitous bloodshed isn’t in the works there’s always gratuitous boredom, which is one of the defining themes of “Revolutionary Road,” a brilliantly observed story of suburbian normality run quietly amuck.
Director Sam Mendes, best known for that other suburbia fable “American Beauty,” focuses his lens once again on the tragedies that come with getting that big white house.
The film is set in Connecticut in 1955, when men “went to the city” wearing identical hats and wives stayed at home and clipped cupcake recipes from Readers Digest. America still had a decade to go before the rise of beatniks and feminists, plus another 10 years before defeat in the Vietnam War. This was the age of Dictaphones and secretaries, of martinis during leisurely lunch hours and more cocktails immediately after 5. In one sense, America will never know such tranquil prosperity again. In another sense, the boredom was excruciating.
April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) feel it, because at the start of their relationship they had vowed not to be like others; to lead brilliant, adventurous lives and to avoid mediocrity like the plague. But then they get married and hunt for a home in Connecticut (incidentally on a street ironically named Revolutionary Road), promptly settle down and raise two kids. Happiness, however, eludes them and even during raucous, booze-and-cigarettes filled parties shared with other young couples on the same road, Frank and April feel isolated and bored.
April is brave enough to admit it: “Look at what we’ve become!” While Frank, tied to an office job in the same company that his father worked for in the city, vents his frustration in sneakier ways, such as a fling with his secretary that brings no joy, much less any spark of passion.
“I want to feel things, really feel things” had once been the driving force of his personality, which caused April to declare, with a kind of whispered awe, “You’re one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.”
What Frank and April can’t bear is the realization that they wasted this interestingness on a backyard with a swing and a house with “plenty of room for kids!” as it is described to them by the achingly arch real-estate agent Mrs. Givings (the always effective Kathy Bates). To April, the house begins to take on the proportions and atmosphere of a prison. To Frank, it’s a symbol of his success (he’s valued in the company and eventually promoted) and crushing failure (“I work 10 hours a day at a job I hate!” he rages to April).
April suggests a drastic remedy: ditch everything and take off for Paris, where she’ll work as a secretary at the U.S. Embassy and Frank can stay in an apartment in some chic arrondissement and “find himself.” The idea electrifies them, but at the same time Frank is downright scared. In Connecticut, they can convince themselves of how special and different they are, but in Paris, they may find out the unsavory truth — that they’re really just two ordinary people.
Seen with eyes jaded by present-day financial realities, Frank and April’s dilemma can seem like an impossible extravagance, even paradisiacal. After all, these two became homeowners by the time they were 25 (what is their problem again?). And when they’re talking endlessly about their discontent, that “taint of money in the voice,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, is unmistakable.
But the real tragedy tucked in this sugar-coated bonbon of sheer cynicism isn’t about economic paradoxes or the raging unhappiness of a nice, loving couple. It’s the malfunction of the American Dream as embodied in American Suburbia. According to Mendes, this is where the thirst for romance and adventure kicks in with a vengeance, and is then left mercilessly unquenched. Get ready to be parched.