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.