Revolutionary Road is a small-spirited depiction of a golden couple in mid-1950s America. As they crash on their own failed hopes and dreams and fall into the trap of a comfortable, convenient life, you wonder whether you'd keep watching were it not for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The movie never draws you into their summer of discontent. Revolutionary Road isn't just a failed literary adaptation. It's a failure of the worst kind: It doesn't even make you want to read Richard Yates' deservedly legendary book.
Of course, you should. It's a singular novel that, for all its woes, imbues its self-regarding characters with a tragic stature. Over the past few decades, some our best filmmakers have made great movies out of "unfilmable" fiction - masterworks like John Huston's The Dead and Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe never imagine themselves under the skin of Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet).
The filmmakers get the way this smart-looking man and woman talk in thunderous abstractions about what it means to be a husband and a wife and to lead an authentic life; the writer and director home in on some of the characters' key beliefs, especially Frank's sad, fallacious notion that if he ever discovered what he was meant to do in life, it would be existential dynamite. But the movie rarely uncovers the nuances that Frank and April openly confess only to themselves. The novel is a literary summation of an era: It makes you understand why English teachers were always talking about "illusion versus reality" and "alienation versus community." (Maybe they still do.) But Yates rooted those themes in flesh-and-blood actuality. Mendes and Haythe merely take the book's motifs and position them in a beautifully appointed diorama of '50s American suburbia.
From the moment we meet the movie's Frank and April, they're both stereotypical and opaque, their feelings and thoughts just beyond our reach. Even though half their actions verge on adolescent play-acting, they believe they share a bond that's original and sincere. But for the sake of two young children, they've sunk deep into their own tasteful version of a blinkered and cosseted provincial life.
Frank treats his job in the sales-promotion department of the Manhattan-based Knox Business Machines as a comedy - that is, until he realizes he can rise to the top in it; out of boredom, and shaky self-esteem, he seduces a comely lass from the secretarial pool (Zoe Kazan). April, who studied acting, realizes she can't make a career of it. She muses about taking economic responsibility for the household by working as a secretary at an American agency overseas and allowing Frank to find himself.
What the movie misses is the texture of their yearning and disillusionment, not just of their fabric and their furniture.
The filmmakers may be too hip to resort to voice-over narration, but if any adaptation could use it, it's this one. Yates' great talent lay in using precise, evocative prose to depict people's dreams hovering around them like thought balloons and colliding like zeppelins. A nimble narrator might have insinuated us pleasurably into the hidden coils of the story.
The film retains a modicum of domestic suspense. April believes the most glorious thing in creation is "a man," but Frank feels unmanned by her. Without knowing it, she is trying to redefine womanhood. When April lays out a solid agenda for them all to move to Paris, we still wonder - will this be a new beginning, or the beginning of the end?
Socially as well as personally, this marital rise and fall has its timeless elements: Couples can feel as trapped in a McMansion as the Wheelers do in their tasteful Colonial-style house. But Yates wrote his novel in the idioms of the Eisenhower era. In those years, he swam the same currents of individual rebellion as Jack Kerouac and John Updike. The filmmakers apply their least pretentious craftsmanship to evoking the manners and mores of the period, but they don't provide a full and satisfying context for the Wheelers' internal angst and halfhearted revolution.
All through the movie, DiCaprio and Winslet keep reaching for epiphanies that never take on dramatic form. They create a meshwork of suggestions and insinuations with their come-ons and grimaces, and they're fascinating to watch, but they don't reveal their characters' deepest secrets.
Mendes keeps those buried beneath the sculpted lawns and gardens of Connecticut or the cubicles and saloons of New York. This is the rare intimate movie that is too pictorial for its own good. Working with the inventive cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes creates an elegant yet empty depiction of the quiet desperation behind a picture window.
(Paramount Vantage/DreamWorks) Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Time 119 minutes. * 1/2 ( 1 1/2 STARS)