17 June 2009

"You're Being Melodramatic"

So says April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) to Frank (Leo DiCaprio) in Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road, or at least something along those lines. Perhaps it's a wink to the '50s melodramas (Sirk's come to mind first) that deal with the same milieu (white, suburban, middle-class) as Mendes's film, but a wink seems out of place in such a heavy (and heavy-handed) film.

Frank and April spent their youth thinking they were exceptional, special people full of promise -- people that knew better than everyone else. As they get married and time goes on and babies start becoming children, Frank and April realize that they are everyone else. They opt to run away from the trappings of their mediocre life in order to realize their potential -- or, as April puts it, to realize what it is they want to do -- in the utopia they come to know as Paris. Of course, that doesn't work, and the film quickly builds to tragedy.

Something in me wanted to like this film. Perhaps a fondness for melodramas, perhaps an interest in the trappings of suburban, middle-class life, perhaps it's the idea that everyone thinks they are exceptional and actually aren't -- either way I wanted to remain optimistic despite poor reviews. And there were things that kept me in the film -- Deakins's photography, Michael Shannon's character -- but it ended up falling short of even lowered expectations.

Perhaps Mendes wanted to invoke Frank's arrogance and April's artless naivety through his directing, but something tells me it is just a bit of ham-fistedness. At some points during the first half of the film the scenes felt so staged that everything became self-conscious -- I could see the actors acting, the art direction as art direction; at one point I was counting the shot duration -- and I couldn't get immersed in the film. Is DiCaprio acting like a putz for his character or is he playing his character like a putz? It got better as the tragedy picked up and my involvement with the characters deepened, but something about Mendes's lack of imagination is constantly off-putting.

And Kate and Leo are good actors, don't get me wrong, but sometimes the intense, raw anguish they are made to exhibit in every frame makes them look more like caricatures than the characters that are presented as caricatures -- Frank's co-worker, Frank's secretary, Kathy Bates's character -- making me question the merits of "realistic" acting, or at least its definition. Are they acting melodramatically or are their characters? There must be some way to express anguish that doesn't rely so heavily on Kate and Leo scrunching up their faces and forcing tears, at least not so often. Again, I tend to point the finger at Mendes, perhaps unfairly.

Even so, the source material offers a lot of deep thoughts about life, marriage, and what it means to be happy or successful -- ideas which kept me thinking and which make me want to read Richard Yates's novel. I know I certainly grew up thinking I was exceptional, and in many ways I still do, acknowledging the possibility of being average only as a distant concept like death; it's an idea that frightens me and can cause endless angst if I think about it too much, but at the same time it is something I feel temporarily immune to. Maybe I'm just perpetually naive. Anyway, I try to avoid the whole disappointment and disillusionment by setting low expectations. I think I'll be alright.

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