Gosh, it must be a confusing time for my regular readers: last week no wheel, this week two wheels. But on Wednesday, I was torn between my story about the town of Desire and reviewing Revolutionary Road; since I didn’t want to wait until next week to do the review, I decided I could even out the wheel thing by doing two this week.
I recently read a Roger Ebert review of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, which was less a review than an analysis of the human condition. By Ebert’s own admission it was not a conventional review, apparently because the movie hit him someplace deeply intellectual. So he talked about that place rather than the film, meaning that one of our most practiced film critics couldn’t quite review a film. (And I couldn’t quite sit through it. At the end, my companion looked at his watch and said, “It’s still Saturday?”)
I find Revolutionary Road difficult to review for similar reasons. It hit me someplace deep and personal, which makes it hard to provide an assessment that would be useful to others. But, like Roger Ebert, I have my own platform, so I will write my review however the heck I please.
I won the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road a few years ago in my writing group’s annual Yankee book swap. (The swap is followed by a typically hysterical game of Dictionary, if you are wondering what word nerds do for fun.) The story was dreary and in some ways predictable, but the book was emotionally effective and beautifully written. The plot is fairly simple and barely relevant; it’s more a perfect portrait of suburban angst than an action-packed thriller.
Book-to-film is a hard transition, and I’m rarely satisfied with the result if I’ve read the book first. When I’m already familiar with the plot points, I spend the movie waiting for the next expected thing to happen. For this reason, Revolutionary Road should have been a no-go for me, except that the casting of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (and direction by Sam Mendes) was too perfect to resist. I saw it the day it premiered here in Boston.
I’m a visual person. If you’re not, you may have no conception of what that even means. I’m not sure I can explain it properly but, in short, I am intensely stimulated by the visual—by colors, shapes, the way the light hits, the color of the sky, by mise en scene. Being an optimist, I generally take great joy in looking at things; I avoid the ugly or find humor, irony, or a story in it. Faces tend to stick like flypaper; when I remember an event, I can see facial expressions, body positions, articles of clothing, furniture.
The strong sense of the visual also manifests itself in a love of fonts; I was lucky that I stumbled into a job as a typographer. I was and continue to be called upon to match fonts, which I can often do from memory. When I worked with type daily, I could name the font, point size, line length, and line spacing on a sample without a measuring device (I always did measure, though, to be sure). I have an eye—some might say an obsession—for when something is “true,” which I try to be discreet about it, but I will straighten paintings wherever I go, even in public. I also have a love affair with color and often end up mixing my own or returning to the paint store time and again to perfect a custom color for a home project. Whether or not the results please others, they please me, and I have a strong need to be surrounded by these visual elements. Being visual is such a part of who I am, I don’t view my behavior as an obsession, but as a necessity.
Given that, I was completely absorbed in the film, due not to the story or even the fine acting, but to the visuals. Set in the suburbs in the 1950s, the film is visually perfect, starting with a house that is historically correct but defies cliche. It is not the grand colonial of Ordinary People or Risky Business, with an endless manicured lawn. It is the home that a young couple might hope would lead to the grand colonial, ugly in its plainness, yet so much better than adequate.
Inside the house, the kitchen cabinetry is barely a step above plywood. I know this because the cabinets in the movie are the cabinets of my childhood home, which were eventually replaced. A symmetrical carved piece of wood hides the light over the sink, a decoration almost identical to the one I grew up with.
With the exception of this cheap cabinetry, I love the look of the ’50s (the artifacts throughout this page are mine, generally taken from my parents’ house), the purple and turquoise, the shape of the furniture, the simple lines, the naivete.
Beyond that, I love the clothes, the men’s casual shirts, the two-toned jackets. The TV show Mad Men, set in the early 1960s, is eye candy, but being a television show it is somehow not as elegant as this film, and the set and props are there to make a statement. This movie is much more subtle. The set serves as the background it deserves to be, but it is visually gorgeous, and I couldn’t help but find myself living in it. Oddly, I noticed my head was bobbing along as the characters conversed. My lips were moving, too, as if I was a part of the scene.
Did I like the movie? I think it worked in terms of capturing the novel, though as Ron said (and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t comment), the themes of the novel are dated. I can see that, but I did not care about that. As I told Ron, I felt as if I was at a museum in front of a kaleidoscopic painting in which each new image pleased me as much as the last.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet both did their jobs well, but they were almost too glamorous for the parts. I don’t think this is the Oscar role I was hoping it would be for DiCaprio, because it just didn’t seem like enough of a stretch. He’s very, very good in it though, as is Winslet who seems imprisoned wherever she goes, and miserable except when she’s deluded herself she’s not or she might somehow not be at some point in the future.
I particularly liked the supporting cast. I don’t know how faces can seem like 1950s faces, but the neighbors and Leo’s lover looked like they were born for that time. They were all very natural and, I think because they were not famous faces, they worked better in this story of miserable normalcy than the two leads did.
Beautifully made move. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it.