NEW YORK - In Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio does not play a CIA agent, a reclusive multimillionaire or a South African diamond smuggler. Instead, he plays Frank Wheeler, a suburban husband, father and office worker - a character of whom it could be said that there's nothing unusual or extraordinary at all.
"I suppose it would be a first," DiCaprio says of this exceedingly normal, almost banal role. "A lot of times, movies don't get made unless it's about something larger than life, or something people find is more interesting than" - and here he laughs - "the monotony of everyday existence."
But Revolutionary Road did get made, and it's not your everyday Hollywood product. The movie, which opens next week, features two of today's biggest stars, DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, in their first film together since the blockbuster Titanic appeared more than a decade ago. But instead of grand sets and elaborate costumes, this comparatively low-budget effort focuses on character and dialogue. And its penetrating, somewhat harrowing story stands out even in a winter movie season filled with serious dramas. All of which might make Revolutionary Road, directed by Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes, the Ordinary People of 2008.
DiCaprio, 34, says the project was spearheaded by Winslet, a longtime fan of Richard Yates' critically praised but largely overlooked 1961 novel. The story, set in 1955, focuses on Frank Wheeler and his wife, April, an attractive, 30-ish couple whose move to a pleasant but lifeless Connecticut suburb hastens the collapse of their marriage and the evaporation of their youthful idealism.
Like John Updike's Rabbit, Run, which preceded Yates' book (and perhaps stole its thunder) by a year, Revolutionary Road looked beyond the green lawns and modern appliances that supposedly defined the postwar American dream. But while Updike found a poignant humor there, Yates found false promises and personal failures.
"This is a book that's deeply beloved by a large number of people, but there are also people who just react to it and have to put the book down," says Justin Haythe, who adapted Yates' novel for the screen. "There's that shudder of recognition as he paints people in all their flaws."
If April embodies falseness - in both the book and the film, she's first seen caked in makeup for an amateur theater production - then Frank embodies failure. Bright, clever and filled with vague dreams of greatness, Frank likes to disparage the "hopeless emptiness" of his suburban milieu. But he settles for it, nevertheless. It's the tragic flaw of nearly every character in the film, from the neighboring Campbells (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour) to Frank's alcoholic co-worker (Dylan Baker) to the gossipy real estate agent (Kathy Bates) who sold the Wheelers their adorable house on Revolutionary Road.
DiCaprio, sitting in a large suite in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on a recent afternoon, says Frank Wheeler marks a refreshing change from his long resume of heroes, martyrs and icons. "I like that he just fell short of fulfilling his dreams," he says. "He was unheroic, he was slightly cowardly. He was willing to just be a product of his environment. I liked all those things."
The role required some research, which meant watching several documentaries about the 1950s and the birth of the American suburb. One film, DiCaprio recalls, focused wholly on Levittown, N.Y. He also asked his mother about the era's constrictive gender roles, which often reduced men to breadwinners and women to bread bakers.
"We had to look back in time and not be nostalgic about it," he says. "This wasn't a kitschy look at the 1950s and suburban life, and Sam was very careful about that. He wanted to make it as bleak and stark and realistic as he possibly could." In the end, the period details - streamlined cars, weighty telephones, the omnipresent cigarettes - seem to matter less than the interaction between the Wheelers.
"It inevitably became irrelevant whatever time period this was in," DiCaprio says. "It became about two people struggling to be happy."
Moviegoers hoping to recapture the swooning romance between Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, the beautiful young passengers of Titanic, may get a rude awakening with Revolutionary Road, but that's fine by DiCaprio. Over the years, he says, he and Winslet have consciously avoided projects that would reunite them in any similar way.
"That would be absolutely silly," he says with a laugh. "It would seem like we were somehow trying to reprise an old kindling of luuuv, or something. ... So this was very much conducive to the type of movie that we would want to do together. It's the disintegration of a relationship, and two people that are meant to be apart."
dicaprio's extraordinary characters
The role of Frank Wheeler, average suburbanite, may be a first for Leonardo DiCaprio, who tends to play outsize characters. Here's a short list of the movies in which he had larger-than-life roles:
Body of Lies (2008) CIA man Roger Ferris hunts a Middle Eastern terrorist, courts an Iranian nurse and locks horns with his coldhearted boss (Russell Crowe).
The Departed (2006) Billy Costigan, a high-strung undercover cop in South Boston, infiltrates the inner circle of crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The film marked DiCaprio's third collaboration with director Martin Scorsese.
Blood Diamond (2006) To play Danny Archer, a South African diamond smuggler, DiCaprio adopted an accent and - his favorite accoutrement when playing a tough guy - facial hair.
The Aviator (2004) As the enigmatic, erratic multimillionaire Howard Hughes, DiCaprio goes all-out with the facial hair, sporting a Rip Van Winkle beard during one of Hughes' weird "episodes."
Gangs of New York (2002) Amsterdam Vallon joins forces with Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in hope of murdering him in this epic tale set in 1860s New York City.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) Real-life con man Frank W. Abagnale lives the high life, forging checks and successfully impersonating people (a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer) until FBI man Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) picks up the trail.
The Beach (2000) Richard, a young slacker, joins the endless parade of backpackers traveling through Thailand but winds up on an idyllic island paradise that quickly becomes a hellish prison.
Celebrity (1998) Shortly after the megafame he gained with Titanic, DiCaprio played a sly parody of himself - or at least of his reputation - in this Woody Allen comedy. Here he's Brandon Darrow, a petulant young actor who wrecks hotel rooms and throws supermodel-like hissy fits.
Titanic (1997) Poor boy Jack Dawson hooks up with rich girl Rose DeWitt Bukater and finds true love - pre-iceberg.