Coveting the trappings of prosperity and normalcy, survivors of the Great Depression and World War II fell into the trap of corporate jobs and suburban complacency. J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield saw it all as “phony.” John Cheever’s short stories, Sloan Wilson’s iconic novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the poetry of the beats, Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes” — all testify to what Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio), in Revolutionary Road, calls “the hopeless emptiness” of American life during the conformist 1950s, the decade of Father Knows Best, Joseph McCarthy, and Levittown. The corollary is the question posed by the song later popularized by Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”
What there is for Frank is a wife, two kids, and a cubicle in Manhattan. It is a life whose vacancy seems destined to be camouflaged by martinis and adulteries. The year is 1955, and Frank has a mid-management job with Knox Business Machines, the same conglomerate that his father wasted his life toiling for. As he tells the secretary he seduces on his 30th birthday, he never wanted to end up like his old man. Along with thousands of other indistinguishable men who dress in identical suits and hats, Frank commutes daily by train from his suburban home. The blatant misnomer of its address on Revolutionary Road is a constant reminder of lost illusions. Frank tells his wife April that the only time he felt really alive was while stationed with the army in Paris.
“Our whole existence here is based on the premise that we’re superior,” insists April, a failed actress who is determined to be more than just a sociological cliché. Even Helen Givings (Bates), the chirpy real-estate agent who sold them their house, tells the Wheelers that they are special, though one gets the feeling she might utter the same pleasantries to all her clients. To confirm that they are not like everyone else, April comes up with a daring plan; they will abandon everything and move to Paris. She will find a job while her husband finds out what he wants to do. “We don’t want life to just pass us by,” she explains to their incredulous neighbors.
Director Sam Mendes has already traveled along some of this reactionary road in his 1999 film American Beauty, whose narrator, an advertising executive named Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), announces at the outset that “ ... in a way, I’m dead already.” But Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road does more than just mock suburban angst. And Mendes’ adaptation is subtly poised between heroism and pathos. When luminous Kate Winslet, as April, tells her husband: “You’re the most beautiful and wonderful thing in the world,” she is convincing, as she is as well while dismissing Frank as “a pathetic, self-deluded little boy.” The film captures the universal yearning for something beyond the ordinary — “I want to feel things, really feel them,” says Frank. Yet John Givings (Shannon), a choric lunatic on leave from Pleasant Brook, the nearby mental hospital that administered 37 electroshocks to him, wanders in and out speaking truth to mediocrity. A Ph.D. in math, he is the brilliant but deranged son of the Wheelers’ real-estate agent, and his madness endows him with divinest sense, and the candor to say what he sees. April belatedly realizes: “We were never special or destined or anything at all.”
The Wheeler marriage veers between reciprocal adoration and detestation. Early in the proceedings, Frank and April engage in a fierce public shouting match after pulling their Buick over onto the shoulder of a highway. Their union is also a neurotic project of codependency, however — at least until an unexpected pregnancy and a promotion complicate the prospect of April in Paris. When Frank begins to equivocate about their new start in Europe and tells his wife, “We can be happy here,” it is both an attack of common sense and an unbearably sad surrender to the status quo. “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a party once,” April tells the man whom, in a society in which women are mere accessories, she discovers she has hitched herself to. Snugly domiciled in Westchester, April knows “it takes backbone to lead the life you want.” She is trapped in a world of invertebrates, in a suburban Yankee version of Madame Bovary. For Frank’s boss, it is less a matter of backbone than cojones. “A man gets only a couple of chances in life,” he declares. “If he doesn’t seize them by the balls, he’ll spend the rest of his life wondering why he’s second-rate.” But what if he does and still has nothing to show for it but crushed testicles?
The dialogue — and silences — are crisp, and the casting, including envious and resentful neighbors and business associates, inspired. Attentive to details of its time and place, Revolutionary Road, like Mad Men, captures the quiet desperation lurking behind American buoyancy during a decade that defies the caricature it has become as it recedes into historical memory. A certifiably mad man does wander through the set, but the film questions the sanity of what passes for normalcy in bourgeois society. Revolutionary Road is a scathing critique of the hollowness of aspiration, yet it also salutes those whom Jack Kerouac, early in his 1957 novel On the Road, calls: “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” The awesome thing about Revolutionary Road is how deftly it exposes an awful truth: We crave radical transformation despite the inexorable reality that the road to revolution is paved with broken backbones and busted balls. •