Friday, 13 February 2009

February Movies: Revolutionary Road

Frank and April Wheeler, drinking again

Or, Marital Angst in Suburbia

Or, the Worst Date Movie of all time

Or, I see the depressing movies so you don't have to . . .

The other night, Sigmund and I were at a Parent/Teacher Conference and - having exhausted the topic of my daughter's progress in Greek - we moved on to an appraisal of this film. "I could have just stayed home and fought with my wife," was the verdict of the Classics teacher.

If you have been to the movies recently, you will have seen the preview of this film. You will know that there will be lots of scenes of Kate (April) and Leo (Frank) shouting at each other; all of this marital strife set against the lugubrious voice of Nina Simone singing "Wild is the Wind", although in the movie Simone's voice is replaced by a rather ominous and frequently repeated motif from Thomas Newman. I actually find the music really beautiful; if you don't, that should tell you all you need to know.

I wouldn't recommend the novel of Revolutionary Road for your summer holiday reading; I wouldn't recommend a viewing of this film if your own marriage feels shaky and life seems meaningless. However, if you are feeling fairly solid, I think it is an interesting portrait of the sort of melancholia that can only affect people who don't have to worry about real problems: war, starvation, sleeping on the streets. For at its heart, the emotional crisis that the young Wheeler couple are suffering from is nothing more than the piercing fear that they aren't really special at all. Indeed, like the suburban neighbors and co-workers that they secretly despise, they are really quite ordinary. They know it, and they want to run away from it.

When I was a child, my parents had an 8-track tape featuring a Peggy Lee song called Is That All There Is? It has to be one of the most depressing songs of all time, and I listened to it countless times. (I'm sure that partially accounts for my high tolerance for the melancholic.) I think that this dirge may have served as an inoculation, though, because I'm not really not that depressive of a person. Although I've had my midlife crisis moments, I do believe there is something meaningful to that most prosaic and yet profound dream: having a home and a family in it.

April and Frank Wheeler are young, healthy and beautiful and they have two children with the same blessings. They live in a lovely house in a nice neighborhood and Frank has a steady, albeit boring, job. At the very beginning of the movie, they get into an argument about whose life is the bigger trap: April's, with her house and children, or Frank's, with his train commute and New York City job. A person is either sympathetic to this sort of problem or thinks it is a bunch of self-indulgent twaddle. (I did wonder if some viewers would be envious of the kind of job security and Connecticut neighborhood that a fairly junior executive could buy with his 1950s dollars.)

One of the elements of the movie that you don't get in the George and Martha screaming at each other preview is the character of John Givings - the brilliant, but completely mad, son of the Wheelers' realtor. In the tradition of the Shakespearean Fool, John is a truth-teller: But does he see clearly, or is his vision warped? When he first meets the Wheelers, they have decided to up-sticks and move to Paris -- with no other concrete plan than April will get a job and Frank will find himself or express himself or similar. John applauds their suburban dream-denying goals, and in a moment of three-way solidarity, he confides almost chummily in them: Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness. During this conversation, the three of them are walking in the woods . . . and I would just note the fairy tale symbolism of this location. Frank and April are smugly thrilled to have the approbation of this insane person; perhaps they should have considered the source?

One of the reasons that Frank and April are not particularly likeable is that their emotions seem to be stuck somewhere in an adolescent register. When they first meet, at a boozy, vaguely Bohemian party, Frank's come-on line is of the dreamily intense variety: I want to feel things. Really feel them. At this moment, April invests all of her hopes and aspirations in this rather shaky foundation. Frank and April are both convinced that he (and by extension, she) are meant to be "wonderful in this world," but they never figure out the how or what. As Roger Ebert points out, they have "yearnings," but actually lack fantasies, never mind the talents to turn fantasies into reality. Although this is probably a massive overstatement, there is something Lady Macbeth-ish about April Wheeler. You get the feeling that Frank would be willing to exist more or less peacefully with his mediocrity -- occasionally relieving the tedium with an office fling or by drinking too much -- but April tries to push him outside of his comfort zone. She's a former, would-be actress -- and the only outlet for her dramatic tendencies is her life.

I think that my tone is getting a bit flippant here; rest assured, the film takes the Wheelers very seriously indeed. And truly, feeling that your life is empty and hopeless is no laughing matter. We have some close friends -- three kids, large house, private school fees -- who are undergoing a similar marital crisis, and those feelings bring down a world of pain. When the wife told me that she felt that life was meaningless, and that she just wanted to feel passion again, I thought Uh-Oh.

There is something in most (all?) human beings that cannot stand the monotony of a comfortable life. We cannot resist lighting matches, and then we are surprised, frightened and inexplicably hurt when the fire burns us.




36 comments:

Amy@Bitchin'WivesClub said...

I have been avoiding this movie like the plague. And maybe that is all you need to hear to know how my past year has gone? ;)

I loved how you described April's only outlet for her dramatic tendencies is "life." I can certainly relate and even though I know it is just a 'little thing'...having the blog to get some of those dramatic tendencies of my own out has made a world of difference.

PG said...

This is so not my kind of film...and I am one of the people who really, really love life being monotonous and comfortable, but maybe if you've not generally had one, you appreciate routine more when you do get it. If you see what I mean! Mind you, I haven't been to the cinema since 2000...

JaneyV said...

I have to say when I saw the trailer for this on apple.com I thought -"um - no thanks!" And I also would have run screaming from the book. It's not that I don't enjoy a good story about the human condition or relationships or that I avoid angst but I just can't bear watching people who have so much to be grateful for sabotaging their own happiness because they value drama above satisfaction - who simply can't equate happiness with being contented.

There is an erroneous assumption that happiness is high energy. This isn't the case - those are thrills and by their very definition they are fleeting and invariably leave you with a sense of being deflated. The feeling of joy, which can fill you up, is more of a swelling of happiness. Finding joy within your day keeps you grounded to your happiness whilst allowing you float on the wave of feeling. People who take for granted that happy, contented feeling, who have no appreciation or feelings of gratitude for it - who thrill seek - will sever those ties without a thought. Then they are surprised when they are swept away in a tsunami and their lives are left devastated.

I did the teenage navel-gazing thing until I realised one day that life is what you make it. Honestly, the drama groupies can flock together as far as I'm concerned. I'd much rather sit in my jammies and listen to the real birds.

Bee I love your blog - it's like having a great chin-wag with a wonderful friend.

Meri Arnett-Kremian said...

It's profoundly sad when people must create angst and drama to feel something.

Anne said...

First, I love your daughter for taking Greek. I wish I'd had the time to stick with it (and Latin), but physics studies are ungenerous in that way. I hope to return to both at some point.

I have mixed feelings about seeing this movie. I want to see it, but perhaps not in a theater with lots of other people, and certainly not with the Suitor.

Have a wonderful trip to Canada!

Barrie said...

I think I'm more in the mood for something light and funny. Especially given that we're heading into a dark, rainy weekend...

Lisa said...

I'll stick with light and funny, too. See Amy's comment above.

Michel said...

2 hours of my life I will never get back!!!!

Elizabeth said...

It was a wonderful film in many ways.
A visual treat.
Definitely worth it.
But I agree with Bee that if things are feeling a little shaky at home this might not be for you.
VERY recognizable characters. The madman who tells the truth stuns as does the ingenue from the secretarial pool.

Bitty said...

I didn't read the whole post, because I suspect that I'll see the film eventually and it seemed to be telling me more than I wanted to hear in advance.

I have been in that horribly rocky place in much of my past, but I think I'm ok right now, up to the challenge.

Bee, I laughed at your comments on "Is That All There Is?" I think that song, as you rightly called "one of the most depressing songs of all time," also taught me something important at a young age -- an attitude not to have.

Or maybe I've just never been "privileged" enough to be bored with life.

(Enjoy your trip! I don't know where else to comment on your side-blog.)

Braja said...

When the page first popped up I thought, Oh no a movie review...cos I don't watch movies and so..y'know, what's the use of reading reviews? But then I saw the first three lines and started laughing, and read all the way thru...thanks for the giggle and yeah...who needs that stuff?!

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I’m with your Classics teacher on this one. Thanks for sparing me. Life is what you make of it. After going through two years of medical woes with a loved one, I appreciated life when it returned to the mundane.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Interesting! And yet... Thanks for sparing me ;-)

Beth said...

I'm going to go with, "I see the depressing movies so you don't have to."
But I might read the book - I find that preferable to enduring the visuals of monotony, despair and discontent.

dancing doc design said...

Bee-
I do believe, if you are not already writing movie reviews, you ought to be doing so- I have not seen this movie yet, but, is it not everyone's unconscious quest to be special, to lead a life of value, to participate in a uniquely meaningful relationship ? I know I can admit such a longing.It is no wonder stories, plays and movies grapple with this theme...but, you have captured the essence and the conflicts which plague so many couples who seek excitement to punctuate their lives with meaning. Alas, thank you again for sharing your gifts with us in bloggyland.

Debski Beat said...

Hello Bee,

I'm back in the Land of Breadfruit. I have not blogged for ages but took a quick jet-lagged look today. Call it old age if you will but I looked at the Peggy Lee link, it was SO depressing that I thought it hilarious, thank you for the best laugh I've had in a couple of weeks, Monty Python could not have produced anything funnier !!!!!!

Fantastic Forrest said...

First of all, your review is outstanding. Thanks for starting this conversation.

We accidentally wound up at RR after missing the starting time for Rachel Getting Married. I love the cinema, but generally avoid depressing films. Like you, Bee, I loved the Newman soundtrack. That family has so damned much talent it's amazing. His pieces dig in under my skin and stay there for days, making me feel restless and uneasy. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe during the movie because the soundtrack and action, building to a crescendo, made me hold my breath. Even at the end, I didn't feel the release. One of my friends who went with me commented that she had enormous tension in her neck afterward. You clench yourself waiting for the impending doom.

The question is whether the doom was necessary. Like Mendes film American Beauty (with a similar great soundtrack by Newman) I felt like the ending wasn't inevitable.

I loved the John Givings character, and so did the audience in the cinema. His blunt assessments got big laughs. I think you are right about the need to consider the source, but I take from that something different than I think you mean. I believe you're saying he was insane; I think he is deeply depressed. He's searching for meaning.

Let's not be too quick to dismiss the fear that some of us have that we really aren't that special. I think it goes hand in hand with the fear that our lives don't have meaning. It's easy to get impatient with people who suffer from those inner questions. But when we aren't struggling for our existence, when our basic needs are met, we do have time to indulge in that search. I'd argue it's not an actual indulgence. That the drive to find something which gives us joy, brings out our special talent, seems to matter, has led to some incredible stuff. Most important things result from people who weren't willing to just settle for a comfortable existence. They stretched and great things were born.

April says toward the end that Paris wasn't important. It was just one path toward striving for something meaningful. Frank was too damned afraid to carry it out and defy conventionality.

It was indeed a tragedy. I like your comparison to Mac Beth. I wish you, Shakespeare and I could sit down over a cup of tea (or something stronger - maybe a glass of ale?) and really talk about this. Frank was a weak guy, a flawed guy. And in some ways it was his dissatisfaction with his life as well as the lack of ambition and follow through to really live up to his promise that drove April to push him.

I'm glad I saw RR. It makes me think very deep thoughts. :-)

You're right that we cannot resist lighting matches (great imagery, BTW) but I would argue that it does not always have to burn us. Some of us can light one hell of a fire that heats things up and ultimately provides warmth for a lot of others too. I'm thinking back to your posts on Gandhi, MLK Jr. and Obama as well as others.

Happy VD, dear Bee! Some day, I hope we can meet in person. We'd certainly be able to talk for hours on end about life, the universe, and everything.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Oh, God, that was a long comment. I am totally embarrassed.

Anne said...

Oh! Forgot to mention that Newman is one of my favorite contemporary composers. I love love love his work and have been wondering what his next project would be. Now I know! And now I really need to see the movie, depressing or not.

ArtSparker said...

I'm not married, but my sister's husband says "Life is too short to see depressing movies". More true the older you get, because of less time.

Wanting to be "special" is a longing for parental approval. Probably best channeled as a member of a congregation of some sort or other. Cause the eyes of the world - tend to be somewhat easily distracted.

Sounding a little brusque here, hope this is not too cranky.

Dick said...

Right, that's saved me a future £14.99, so thank you, Bee, for the elegant dissing of the movie. Schadenfreude has its place, but the price looks a little high this time.

Audrey said...

This confirms my trepidation of that film. Go see "Vicky Christina Barcelona" it's fab!

Meredith Teagarden(The Things we Carried) said...

Your writing is incredible. That is the best review I have read in a very long time.

Dave King said...

I think your last sentence sums it all up beautifully.

julochka said...

i think that's the most interesting review i've read of that film. but i think i'll wait to catch it on a plane, rather than using up a too-seldom theatre visit on it. :-) very interesting food for thought, tho'.

Lucy said...

Having just read your reviews of this one and 'Slumdog' together, you've sold me the latter in preference. One of my older students once said on the subject of happiness, that it's not a right but a duty, especially as we get older. Not to say we have to be whooping it up in a state of euphoria, just that we need to practise a kind of stoic cheerfurlness sometimes against the odds.

When I travel in cities, as I just have, the vast numbers of unknown human lives, the anonymity, sometimes boggles me and gives me a kind of vertigo, and I can understand a little more the obsession with celebrity, the need to stand out. Perhaps when fewer people have faith in a god who knows and loves us and with whom we count equally, this is another way of dealing with it...

But I think I'll give this film a miss, Ithink it would just make me cross!

Gifted Typist said...

I may appreciate the depiction of emotions so profound and common,
but I'm not sure I would want to pay to be dragged through another couple's pain like this.

That said, I appreciate the artistry and have enjoyed reading the reviews because allows me to know a little something without getting too involved.

Reya Mellicker said...

If I'm in a mood to walk down the marital angst mood in movies, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf would be my pick.

I do think Kate Winslet is a fantastic actress, though.

Maggie May said...

that novel was so damn depressing. and i usually love a well written drama, depressing or not. i love Joyce Carol Oates! but something about that novel...it was so EMPTY. so terrifyingly empty.

your last paragraph there- what you said about human beings- strikes me as one of the most original and true thoughts i've read in a long time. genius analysis. i'm impressed with this whole wonderful post.

Jan said...

I've just seen Winslett in "The Reader" and marvelled at both film/Ms W but look forward to checking out RRd. ( although clearly " looking forward" is not quite the right expression!!
I LOVE your line how we can't resist lighting matches....imagine that image at the start of a film or a story..

Pete said...

I just wanted to add my little Yay for Kate W. And I loved that John Givings character. He had the best lines in the whole thing. I'm with you on a bit of melancholy being a good innoculation against the real thing.

Bee said...

I would have to write another LONG post to respond halfway adequately to these wonderful and thoughtful comments. Please know that I have read through them several times.

In some ways, I feel that I was unfair to the movie/novel. It is a beautifully made film which has been carefully adapted from its novel source. The acting/music/photography/design are all superb. And - I'm looking at you, FF - I'm actually the first to vibrate in response to the need to find meaning in one's life. However, I found these characters (and Yates's vision) profoundly depressing -- and somewhat vacuous, too. I know that I could easily flip my argument -- and instead attempt to persuade that Givings' depression is a honest and true way of looking at things, but I just find that point-of-view too unbearable. And yet . . . perhaps we need it, just as bracing seasoning, to allow us to really taste the wholesome aspects of life?

TiffanyBee said...

it's your last paragraph that strikes me the most. i saw the film and came away with utter contempt at the selfishness of these two children.

Bee said...

TiffanyBee - Your comment reminded me about "those children" as parents. Isn't it telling that their children are almost always absent?

pRiyA said...

Your sentence in the last para captured everything about the film: There is something about human beings that cannot stand the monotony of a comfortable life.

I am glad I stumbled here through Delwyn's blog :-)

cipriano said...

What a terrific in-depth review.
I've been thinking of renting this movie as it is just now available in our Rental stores here.
I think I will do it.
Melancholia and all!