July 2, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Revolutionary Road

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Revolutionary Road
Today's movie: Revolutionary Road, 2008 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it's the latest Oscar-nominated prestige pic from "Big Bad Suburbs" (or BBS) filmmaker Sam Mendes (American Beauty), adapted from one of the first BBS-themed novels ever written, the semi-forgotten 1961 postmodernism harbinger by the academically-admired but now-obscure Richard Yates. Because as regular readers know, I read and reviewed the original novel earlier this year and was surprisingly blown away by it, finding it a much more complex and morally murky story than I was expecting, and getting me more interested for the first time in exploring other authors from the beginning of the postmodernist movement, people like Philip Roth and John Updike and all the rest. Because it's the first movie since Titanic to co-star the power duo Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, two of the most well-regarded actors of their generation, who specifically agreed after that juggernaut not to do a movie together again until finding a script they both intensely loved; and for those who don't already know, because Winslet just happens to be married to Mendes in real life, and insisted to the money people behind this production that she wouldn't do it unless her husband was allowed to direct.

The reality: WOW. It's no secret that I'm not much of a fan of Mendes, and frankly there wasn't much of a reason to believe that he'd do well with this newest assignment that landed rather randomly in his lap either; after all, a whole series of better directors have tried and failed to take on this project themselves over the last half-century, from John Frankenheimer in the mid-'60s (who eventually abandoned it to make The Manchurian Candidate) to Todd Field just a few years ago (who eventually abandoned it to make the similarly BBS-themed Little Children, also starring Winslet), with Mendes essentially being the lucky beneficiary of a series of random studio mergers and bankruptcies in the early 2000s. So how astounding, then, to watch this and see that he has retained nearly all the subversive surprises that made the original novel such an unexpected treat; because for those who don't know, this story is not really an indictment of middle-class-yearning simpletons like how American Beauty and so many other contemporary BBS tales are, but rather a powerful slam against the hipster-douchebag intelligentsia who end up in the bland suburbs despite knowing better, the bohemians who choose to hypocritically accept all the comfortable perks of suburban life while still railing against suburban life behind the safety of their shaded ranch-home windows.

In fact, I thought it was very telling that during a magazine interview last fall, DiCaprio mentioned how he saw his character Frank Wheeler as "unheroic" and "slightly cowardly," almost the same exact terms I used in my review of the original novel; because this is ultimately what makes this film a dark masterpiece instead of the usual Mendes treacle, that all three of the principles involved were ready to delve into all the horrible little spaces where Yates himself went in the book, not an insult against those who simply wish for comfortable lives but rather against those who try to have it all, the Americans since World War Two who have attempted to have all the materialistic perks of the corporate middle class but all the gut-wrenching passion of full-time artists too, resulting in a badly-clashing disaster that here ends in legitimate tragedy. And as a result, I have to confess how shocked and pleased I was to see Mendes sneak in so many of the subtle details from the book that make the final message as powerful as it is, and why it is that so many intellectuals consider this one of the first true postmodernist novels ever written; just to cite one excellent example, how it's Frank who ends up getting both his wife and their best-friend next-door-neighbors hanging out at the cheesy, kitschy roadhouse in their neighborhood, originally for ironic enjoyment (which let's not forget, eventually became one of the biggest calling cards of postmodernism, the ironic enjoyment of cheesy pop culture), but how it's also Frank who becomes the first one to eventually enjoy the roadhouse non-ironically, a quiet but incredibly important moment in the original novel that I was surprised and pleased to see Mendes squeeze into the film version as well.

Or to mention another example, think about how in my original book review, I said that this can almost be seen ultimately as a complex character study of those weirdo, overly serious fifty-something tech executives in the 1970s who were the first major investors in such computer companies as Apple; it's no coincidence, after all, that the "Knox Business Machines" (or KBM) that Frank works for in this story is so similar to the real-world IBM as it existed in the late '50s, and I think it's pretty safe to compare the speciality group of mavericks that Frank's boss pulls off from the main company at the end as a fictional stand-in for the real Xerox PARC, a commercial thinktank started in the late '60s for the exact same reasons mentioned in Yates' made-up story (to figure out how to sell million-dollar cutting-edge tech systems to billion-dollar conservative companies), and which contained many of the first people to become billionaires in the real world because of investing in the personal-computing industry in the late '70s. As I said in my original review of the book, if nothing else you can see Revolutionary Road as the story of how one of these rich, weird, always-sad tech executives got to the place in the '70s where they did, of all the bizarre and heartbreaking things they had to go through in the '60s to reach that point; so how satisfying to see Mendes agree with me, and see him end the movie version of RR exactly with this thought in mind.

Can you tell that I liked this movie? That I liked it a whole lot? And that I think you should rent it out too as soon as you can? And that it's unfortunate that it got sucked into the usual Oscar-Prestige-Christmas circle-jerk whirlpool that so many of these titles get pulled into right around the same time each year, so that everybody ended up hearing about it but hardly anyone actually saw it? Yes, there's that too. Definitely check out this movie when you have a chance, especially right now when there's a billion temporary copies down at your local Blockbuster; despite all the stereotypes going against it, it really is a remarkable film, something that elevates itself against all the brick walls that come with the production's circumstances.

Strangest piece of trivia: Not only was this the first film since Titanic to co-star Winslet and DiCaprio, but also the first since then to counter-star celebrated character actress Kathy Bates, who plays the couple's nosy real-estate agent in a more nuanced way than even in the original novel itself.

Worth your time? Oh Lord yes

(POSTSCRIPT SPOILER ALERT! POSTSCRIPT SPOILER ALERT! This very last thought has nothing to do with the above main review, but was just an interesting remark I wanted to share with those who have already seen the movie or read the book. If you've done neither, absolutely do not read the paragraph below this one.)

And by the way, how subtly smart that what seems at first to be a random image used for the film's poster turns out to be a shot from seconds before the Wheelers make passionate love in their suburban kitchen, after finally deciding that yes, they really can chuck it all and move to Paris in three months if they want, ironically the same exact moment that Alice ends up getting pregnant and triggering all the events that lead to the film's eventual tragic ending. This is why people originally went so nuts over the book, because of every seemingly banal moment actually being packed with symbolic importance; the fact that this even boils over into what image was used for the movie poster I think says a lot about how surprisingly great this film turned out to be.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:45 AM, July 2, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |