In the movies, ”the suburbs” are never just a place. They’re a state of mind, a mythology we all know in our bones. The myth goes something like this: The suburbs are comfortable, maybe even beautiful, but their serenity is rooted in a friendly American conformity, so that the people who live there have to repress their true selves, which will emerge when they drink too much and have affairs, or rage at each other for their dishonesty, which was all caused in the first place by…the suburbs.
The best thing about Revolutionary Road, a cool-blooded and disquieting adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about a powerfully unhappy Connecticut couple, is that it doesn’t end with that rote vision of bourgeois anomie. It only begins there. Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are about 30, with two kids, and both believe they can evade the traps of the existence they’ve chosen. The year is 1955, and Frank has a New York job that bores him, marketing business machines. He takes solace in feeling superior to his work, and also in his midday martinis and occasional dip into the secretarial pool. April, meanwhile, wanted to be an actress, and still feels she’s meant for higher things.
Moved to reach for something more, April comes up with a plan: She and Frank will sell their home and move to Paris, where she’ll work as a government secretary and he will…find himself. (It’s like a ’60s fantasy a decade ahead of time.) Revolutionary Road was directed by Sam Mendes, who made the glibly scathing American Beauty, only here he wants us to share not just Frank and April’s misery but the frail reveries that hold them together. The escape-to-Paris idea is naive, impractical — a pipe dream. Yet it’s fueled by something Mendes captures about the ’50s, an era when people often had deep imaginative sparks that exceeded their ability to voice them. Winslet has the tricky job of making us see the glimmer of wisdom in April’s cockeyed plan, and she pulls it off, even as DiCaprio’s Frank — chipper, forthright, wholesome even in betrayal — tugs the couple back to reality.
Revolutionary Road has deception, adultery, operatic shouting, the then-forbidden specter of abortion, and a few scenes that spotlight the remarkable performance of Michael Shannon as John Givings, a mathematician who’s been hospitalized for insanity, and who proves how unfit for society he is by making every acid comment cut to the truths that no one else will speak. The film is lavishly dark — some might say too dark — yet I’d suggest it has a different limitation: For all its shattering domestic discord, there’s something remote and aestheticized about it. April brings a private well of conflict to her middle-class prison, but Winslet is so meticulous in her telegraphed despair that she intrigues us, moves us, yet never quite touches our unguarded nerves. B+