Did Richard Yates write the Great American Novel when nobody was looking? Revolutionary Road, which has now been made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published, back in the early '60s. But it didn't win, and Yates began a long slide into oblivion, a bottle in one hand, a pack of cigarettes in the other. By the time he died, in 1992, Yates was largely forgotten, but Revolutionary Road, his first novel, about the flight to and from suburbia, will be read as long as people are curious about what it was like to live in America during the 1950s. What was it like? It was a picture-window, patio-barbecue, two-martini-lunch vision of pure hell.
Yates introduced us to Frank and April Wheeler, artistic types who'd never gotten around to becoming artists. April thought she'd like to be an actress. Frank thought he'd like to be...well, he wasn't exactly sure, but it would involve juggling ideas and impressions. Instead, he took a job at Knox Business Machines, a place his father had worked before him. And when April got pregnant, they moved to the suburbs, where they felt terribly superior to everybody else. They weren't meant for the suburbs, you see. They were meant for better things. Or were they? After plopping them down in their comfy prison, Yates got out his set of carving knives and went to work on these two, slicing away the pretensions and great expectations until all that was left was a couple staring into the void of their once-promising marriage.
It's one of those books that shouldn't be turned into a movie, all the juicy stuff supplied by an omniscient narrator. (And narrators don't come any more omniscient that Yates.) But here the movie is anyway, with DiCaprio and Winslet doing their damnedest to indicate hidden depths of thought and emotion. It doesn't help that we remember these two from Titanic, where they played more or less the same characters, whose hopes and dreams were drowned before they could murder them themselves. Here, they seem too movie-star gorgeous, making it that much harder to believe that Frank and April may be quite ordinary when you get right down to it. Director Sam Mendes bathes Winslet, his real-life wife, in golden light. She looks and sounds - that honey-smooth voice! - like a million bucks.
DiCaprio is miscast - too boyish, not enough of a shit. Through Frank, Yates dissected the mid-century American male, his sense of entitlement and his reluctance to rock the boat. And DiCaprio plays that, but he doesn't embody it. Frank is also a bit of a pseudo-intellectual; he can set words spinning in the air, like plates, but he doesn't really know what he's talking about. And DiCaprio doesn't get at that. What's so great about the novel is that Yates always lets us know both what Frank and April are saying and what they're thinking, which are not often the same thing. In the movie, we hear what they're saying, but we have to guess what they're thinking. We've lost a whole layer of perspective, and as a result, what seemed vaguely satiric in the book now seems emphatically melodramatic.
That includes some of the loudest shouting matches since George and Martha went after each other in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The difference is that Edward Albee got his own voice into those shouting matches, which were poetry-slams of venom and bile, whereas Yates' voice has been left on the page. What we get instead are pretty pictures. Cinematographer Roger Deakins can't stop himself from capturing the sheer beauty of conformity - the sea of men's hats flowing through Grand Central Station, the trash cans lined up on the curb like a work of public art. How are we supposed to appreciate the "hopeless emptiness" that Yates was talking about if it's done up so nicely? Is the suburban blandscape boring or not?
From John Cheever short stories to Mad Men episodes, we feel we know this territory - the lives of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation. But Revolutionary Road doesn't seem quite lived in, altogether real. Frank and April's customary two kids are almost never around, for instance. Instead, they're brought on when needed, like stage props. It's the possibility of a third child that sends the couple into a nervous breakdown. April has cooked up the idea of the family moving to Paris, where she will take a job, thereby allowing Frank ample time to "find himself." Basically, she's calling Frank's bluff after all these years, but Frank's no longer the man she thought she married. He's now The Organization Man, The Man in the Gray-Flannel Suit. He actually wants to join The Lonely Crowd.
After many recent tries, from Mendes' own American Beauty to last year's Little Children (starring none other than Kate Winslet as a frustrated housewife), suburbia remains a target that's both the size of a barn and strangely elusive. Directors can't seem to get it right, and neither has Mendes, who comes from the stage and allows the supporting cast to go with broad characterizations. Kathy Bates has never known how to rein it in; here, as a real estate agent who thinks only in mortgages, she seems to be spoofing her own performance. But it's Michael Shannon, as Bates' truth-spewing son "on a four-hour pass from the funny farm," who makes Revolutionary Road seem like a bad night at the theater. You'll never have Paris, he tells our embittered lovebirds, as if they or we didn't already know that.