Revolutionary Road

Year: 2009
Studio: Dreamworks
Director: Sam Mendes
Producer: Sam Mendes
Writer: Justin Haythe/Richard Yates
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon
Revolutionary Road is the evil twin of Sam Mendes' 1999 classic American Beauty. In that film, hero Lester (Kevin Spacey) doesn't even realise he's trapped in the urbane miasma of middle class, his mind wasting away as he drowns in the pursuit of material acquisition and mind-numbing work.

He only realises when the opportunity presents itself to slap him across the face, blackmailing his employer for a year's salary, getting a dead end job in a burger joint with no responsibility and summing up the movie's mission statement with the pivotal line as he glances around at his beautiful house and furniture; 'this is just stuff!'

Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) are the opposite – they can see the American dream is an oppressive, spirit-crushing suburban prison. After growing up, meeting and falling in love in the free-wheeling city, they've moved to the soulless suburbs of terminally chirpy neighbours and neatly trimmed lawns determined not to let life bog them down and determined not to forget their ambitions, no matter how whimsical (an acting career for April, living in Paris for Frank).

But now Frank goes to a job he hates in the city selling business machines, having to escape the crushing boredom by pursuing a callow affair with a secretary for some excitement. As he's said early on in the film, he doesn't want to become the same boring suburban bozo as his Dad, he wants to feel things.

And April stays at home baking cookies and wondering what's become of her verve and dreams, already nursing the disappointment from her failed acting aspirations.

Realising the metaphorical cement is already drying around their ankles, April makes a last ditch effort. She explains to Frank excitedly one night that she's done the sums and thinks they should move to Paris, where she'll support the family with secretarial work and Frank can work out what he wants from his life.

It's the movie's most beautiful and hopeful scene, the chance you hope will be the same one Lester from American Beauty sees. It's April and Frank's chance for freedom, the one where a woman loves her husband so much she's prepared to support him instead, simply because he's a person with talents and deserves the opportunity to work out what to do with them.

The reason it's American Beauty's evil twin is because the story details Frank and April's dreams crumbling, freedom flying from their grasp instead of filling their souls. Everything from a tempting promotion offer at Frank's work to scandalised friends weigh in, and Frank starts to gradually talk himself out of the plan while April emotionally shuts down, the disappointment complete.

The crazy guy, John (Shannon) – the mental patient son of the Wheeler's irritating real estate agent (Bates) – is the only one who sees the truth. His only real flaw is an eccentric lack of social conventions, so even as Frank and April deny their life is crumbling, he gives voice to their plight in brutally plain language, at letting the life they hate enslave and prematurely kill them.

Revolutionary Road has structural flaws – particularly at the end when director Mendes knows what he wants to say but doesn't seem to be able to offer a cohesive conclusion. It lags in parts and while it's not nearly as long as Winslet and DiCaprio's last outing together, you can feel the gaps.

The occasionally stylised, over-theatrical performances and dialogue don't often ring true to the material either, and whether Mendes wanted to render them as a stylised, sitcom 50s setting or not isn't clear.

But Revolutionary Road is an urgent modern fable whatever the period. It's a warning to follows your dreams that's refreshing and unsentimental and should be seen by anyone who's trying not to admit that they've talked themselves out of pursuing what they really want in life.

And what a fantastic character April Wheeler is. When every other woman around her becomes a cog in the giant machine of the stay-at-home-Mom economy with no identity of their own, she's her own woman who doesn't want to end up mired in mediocrity and knows the most important lesson of all – that her relationship with her husband is more important than the one with her children, her home and everything else around her. To watch her spirit drain away is pure Shakespearian tragedy.

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