Thursday, January 8, 2009

Hating on Main Street

Now that I've said a bunch of nice things about some of the movies I've seen this year, I thought for balance's sake that I'd put a some hurting on one that I thought was a real stinker:

Revolutionary Road
(Sam Mendes, US, 2008)
A lot of stuff and nonsense. I ended up lending all of my available empathy to the actors, who toiled admirably in spite of a bogus script and seriously inept direction. (In plenty of scenes, Kate was still a joy to watch despite the cringe-worthiness of the material; Leo fared worse, with his proclivity for easy tics and stock gestures abetted by Mendes.)

It’s a very pretty film; the cinematography, editing, and music are mostly excellent, but that’s about as much goodwill as I’m willing to expend on this turkey. The central, overriding and positively indefensible flaw is this: the thematic conceit is a bunch of bullshit. The film posits itself as being wise, insightful and maybe even subversive, but it ends up supporting the same ridiculous dichotomies embraced by the characters - namely, that in America, one can (and must) choose between the mindless, sterile existence of mainstream suburbia, or flee the bourgeois sham and thrive, "y'know, really feel things" in the Utopia of Europe (specifically Paris). I don’t think the filmmakers believe this, but that’s the reality the film presents, and it's as bogus and simplistic as a chest-thumping Michael Bay pageant.

RR is so unselfconsciously enamored of its own tragic weight that it ends up feeling, more than anything else, bizarre. Lines are uttered with a stagy crispness that feels almost Brechtian, except here it's meant to be dramatic, not distancing. (Eg: the line "I felt that way once. pregnant pause The first time I made love to you" is delivered with a kind of trance-like conviction.) There are occasional bits of coherence that emerge from the script, and a couple flashes of realistic human behavior - such as when DiCaprio and the underutilized Zoe Kazan share a boozy afternoon tryst - but mostly the clunkers and head-scratchers keep piling up, with incresingly strange results.

The weirdness reaches its apogee with ultimate pseudo-canonization of the Wheelers, suggesting the audience take them as tragic unsung heroes/dreamers, and who were at least less hypocritical than all the other pathetic suburbanites. This is confirmed by the last couple of scenes, where the still-shaken neighbors agree to forget the Wheelers and the uncomfortable truth they represented, and the bizarre final shot where the old codger tunes out his wife as she drones on about how the Wheelers were really just odd troublemakers.

Finally, although finely acted, the Michael Shannon part was perhaps the biggest bucket of hogwash slung in the entire film. It further endorses the notion that all mainstream life is intrinsically vapid, empty, hopeless, etc. – and that the only way to really see and understand this truth is to be bulging- eyeball insane. We're meant to understand that Frank and Susan don’t really see the depths of the Dark Truth about bourgeois life in the fifties; if they did, they would also be getting multiple rounds of electroshock therapy. Do Mendes and Co. really not think that audiences are going to see through this condescension and, justifiably so, get pissed off?

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