Friday, January 09, 2009

Revolutionary Road

After the way that poor old Anthony Mingella crapped on Cold Mountain I am hardly going to take the trouble to read Charles Frazier's novel.

This is the trouble with movie-adaptations of well-loved books, especially keenly felt here I suspect, because Revolutionary Road is one of those perpetually nearly discovered gems of twentieth century literature, the kind which both readers and writers cherish and pass on in a chain of word-of-mouth recommendations. Now it will be fixed in the mainstream consciousness as thjat middling to good movie where Kate and Leo got back together.

This isn't an entirely unlikeable film, but it belongs to a class of movie-making that generally repels me. It's an even more hyper-stylised period piece than Changeling, but in Clint's flick the stylisation wasn't trying to fill the gap left by literature.

In Cortázar's Rayuela (it too set in the 50s) Horacio claims to have had enough of purely descriptive literature, which for him is like a script without the rescate of images. But here Sam Mendes provides enough proof that ficiton doesn't have to bend itself into something unrecognisable in order to escape the challenge of the all-powerful moving image. Indeed it is the latter which shows itself as inadequate here — meros imágenes sin el rescate de la literatura.

In truth I sensed that the drama of the piece was getting steadily better as it progressed, but the mis-steps at the start were always going to be hard to overcome. For instance, the fight in the car - Chapter 2 of the novel - is absolutely crucial. It has to be properly nasty. As Yates put it:

"Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and deeper into each other's weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each other's strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint and strike again."

The author doesn't need to provide us with the actual dialogue and that of course presents a serious challenge for the would-be screenwriter. Justin Haythe simply dodges it, leaving April a rather passive figure in the tumult, which in turn means that Frank has to be made to be more constrained.

The director needed to make the audience feel uncomfortable in their seats, but in this he fails, and then he skips the equally excruciating silence that follows this squall the next day. So when Frank goes back to work and into bed with Maureen we haven't seen much of the lingering "stare of pitying boredom" that April has been treating him to during their first gathering with Shep and Milly, a scene that Haythe has omitted entirely. Viewers could be forgiven at this stage for thinking this is a story about a neglected housewife and her slimebag husband.

April's proposal for a move to Paris also comes out of the blue, because the script hasn't worked hard enough to show us why both Frank and April suspect that their essence is entirely out of step with the post-war American dream, that "they alone were painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture." Mendes actually makes the suburban life look appealing. (Was he afraid to repeat himself after American Beauty?)

The scene where Frank marches through the Grand Central concourse amidst a host of similarly atired and behatted salary-men is memorable, but for me also encapsulated the way Mendes has emphasised the temporal distance between us and Frank's working existence, when in fact one of the great pleasures of the novel is the contemporary resonance of Yates's satire on cubicle life. And it's incredibly funny; whereas I don't think I even sniggered once in this movie. (Frank's celluloid workmates here barely register as worthy of our attention.)

Michael Shannon from Bug has a nice turn as John Givings; he seems to specialise in engaging loons. Somehow I felt these two interventions in the Wheelers' lives may even have worked better in the film than they did in the novel.

Still, it seemed an appropriate sort of book to be reading very shortly after finally extricating myself from "a life I couldn't stand", and the messed-up mathmo's weary opener that "if you want to play house you have to have a job" is really just the beginning of the journey of self-examination that Yates is usually able to send his readers on. Mendes meanwhile seems oddly reluctant to unsettle his 2009 audience in quite the same way.

One last observation. The funny thing about Di Caprio is that with each movie he does, I always seem to start off thinking he's been horribly mis-cast and end up more or less completely convinced how right he was for the role. Winslet is perhaps a bit too soft for April, but then she's the director's moll.

Grade B

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