Magazine article The New Yorker

A Better Life

Magazine article The New Yorker

A Better Life

Article excerpt

It has become clearer than ever that the movie year is divided into two parts. There's the first nine months, which are filled, it seems, with bigaudience digital spectacles about men who fly, animated movies about indignant handheld devices and chatty rodents, and all-male comedies about virgins lost in a condom factory. And then there's the Oscar-focussed final three months of the year, which are devoted to movies about failure, abjection, death, and the Holocaust, most of them starring Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett. "Revolutionary Road," from the celebrated Richard Yates novel of 1961, is one of the latter. It is honorably and brutally unnerving. Yet it may suffer, as only an awards-season movie can, from the illusion that pain and art are the same thing.

The movie is set a half century ago--not in the actual nineteen-fifties but in the semi-mythical fifties of John Cheever, Sloan Wilson, and many other writers as well as Yates, a time in which the orderly bedroom communities of New York and Connecticut were mourned as the national emblem of disillusionment and spiritual decline. Sam Mendes, adapting Yates's book with the English screenwriter and novelist Justin Haythe, has been in this suburban wasteland before, in 1999, with "American Beauty." That movie was all stylized red and black surfaces. This time, Mendes pushes the signature look of the fifties: commuters in identical gray suits and hats pour like lava through Grand Central Terminal and settle to work in vast open floors with shaded glass partitions. Cigarettes are lit and furiously smoked before, during, and after conversation; Martinis, consumed by the bucketful, launch anxious bouts of adultery and heartrending quarrels. The movie's central male figure is Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio), a handsome young office worker with neatly combed light-brown hair and crisp white shirts. Several years earlier, at a party, Frank had spied a girl named April (Kate Winslet), a stunner with a long back and golden tresses; the hungry way they looked each other over on that occasion is meant to summarize for us the hopefulness and the erotic splendor of their early years together. The movie, like the novel, picks up with them in 1955, when they are living in a small, agreeable house in Connecticut, with their two children. April, who wanted to be an actress, has failed in that ambition, and Frank is lazily and contemptuously working for the same business-machine manufacturer in Manhattan that his father had worked for. At the same time, the Wheelers, in revolt against the suburbs, against conformity, against playing it safe, believe that they are marked for some extraordinary destiny. Somehow, they will escape. As a couple, they are the American descendants of Henry James's melancholy Londoner John Marcher, from the novella "The Beast in the Jungle," a man who spends years preparing for the special fate that he's sure will spring at him from the wilds of life.

The movie is driven, however, not by the hope of liberation but by a tense, looming sense of disaster, and part of our fascinated but fearful response to it is created by the sense that April and Frank are never at ease with each other. In the past, Winslet has played American women without straining, but this time she enunciates with laborious precision--you can see her propelling vowels and consonants like smoke rings. She and Mendes (her offscreen husband) have worked out a conception of April as a will-driven, semi-hysterical female defined solely by her relationship with Frank. Forcing herself to extremes, April is either electrified by her husband ("You're the most beautiful thing in the world--a man") or disgusted by him; she will turn him into a god or destroy him, and Winslet keeps her back rigid, her shoulders high, her jaw set. DiCaprio, by turns cocky, supplicating, and enraged, gets the externals right, but he seems a little afraid of revealing the depths of Frank's shallowness. Frank is a liar, an adulterer, and a compromiser who betrays himself as much as his wife, but DiCaprio projects a natural heroic sweetness--it's in his movie-star genes--which, in this case, is at odds with the character he's playing. …

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