The Movie Club

Stop Harshing on Revolutionary Road
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2009 6:32 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear all,

Ah, Lisa, tempted as I am to dive into Will Smith's psyche, I'd much prefer (in response to your sign-off request for the women we loved this year) to dive into Kate Winslet's uterus. I've been quietly suffering the slights to Revolutionary Road, in this forum and elsewhere, and my dander is firmly up. No other characters this year spoke to me as powerfully, or moved me as deeply, as the Wheelers, and my response to their pain has little to do with the overplumbed chill of the suburbs or the meta-pairing of the stars. Simply put, Revolutionary Road speaks to real lives, real marriages, and real human experience—never mind female experience—in a way few American movies even attempt to do.

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I once read somewhere that when European film students make their first film, it's usually about something they're familiar with, while American students tend to make movies about gangsters, aliens, and things that go boom. My point here is that while Stephanie is longing for films that are alive, I'm longing for films about life: life as we know it, live it, and love it (which is why I was so drawn to the marvelous little Irish movie Eden). The tragedy of the Wheelers—unplanned pregnancy, a rush to marriage, a second child "to prove the first wasn't a mistake," as April Wheeler so piercingly admits—is one many people have lived through, and Winslet and DiCaprio could not possibly be more heartbreaking. The look on her face when she realizes she has married a coward, a man unable to accept the gift of the Parisian life he claims to long for, was the single most devastating moment I experienced in a movie theater all year.

This kind of male terror is rarely highlighted in American movies, but perhaps even rarer is the movie's silent yet deafening subtext: that living with autonomy means living without children. It's a dilemma most women struggle with (and is also addressed, more slyly, in Wendy and Lucy—I'll get to that in a minute), but Revolutionary Road passes that burden to Frank, making the future of their unborn child—and their marriage—his decision. (SPOILER ALERT!) And when he freezes, April's response is not the abortion per se: It's suicide.

I know, I know, but bear with me for a moment. As the film makes clear, for women like April Wheeler, safe abortions in the 1950s were not that difficult to obtain. But not only does she fatally postpone the procedure, she cleans her house, cooks her husband a perfect breakfast, and makes sure everything is in order—behavior consistent with psychological profiles of female suicide. April wants to die, an intent that crescendos slowly in the movie's final 30 minutes. And for those who take issue with Sam Mendes' fastidious direction, I submit that his control is essential to the movie's construction of the perfect couple and its subsequent destruction. When April Wheeler tells her husband, "We're not special," she's openly refuting not only Mendes' direction but the entire fabric of the film.

Another thing: A side-by-side reading of Road and critical darling Wendy and Lucy offers fascinating parallels of theme (if not execution). Lucy the dog essentially functions as Wendy's child and (ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT) ultimately has to be left with a foster parent so her owner can wander on unencumbered. And much as I love this beguiling little movie and Michelle Williams' tender performance, the story is drowning in improbabilities. For a vagabond, Wendy is shockingly inept: a useless shoplifter and careless traveler who, instead of hopping on a Greyhound bus (she has the money), chooses instead to ride the perilous rails. Hasn't she heard of the Craigslist "Rideshares" section? Could she also be—a suicide?

Well, wasn't that cheery? Now you know why I'm absolutely the worst person in this forum to discuss American comedies: My dour Scottish genes have remained unaroused since Stuck on You and Team America: World Police (and yes, Lisa, I can sing every song). So when it comes to Farrelly vs. Faris, you ladies will have to apportion the yuks without me.

A quick addendum to the surgery thread (pun intended): I see no reason for us to be squeamish about naming names. We all have eyes (however crêpe-y), as well as an obligation to note when an actor is no longer able to convey emotion without flapping his/her arms. And since Asia Argento's breasts don't, um, get in the way of her acting (quite the reverse, at least in Mistress), they're not in the same category as Kidman's alien (and alienating) visage and, to a lesser extent, the radically altered countenance of Meg Ryan. And let's not forget the men: I recall watching Dennis Quaid in Far From Heaven and noting that someone appeared to have taken a running stitch around the perimeter of his once-roguish features and yanked it tight. Now that was funny.

Toodles,
Jeannette

Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.

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