Two Strange Reviews: Revolutionary Road and The Reader

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Warning: The following two reviews contain numerous spoilers.

It’s rare that I find a movie that satisfied as much as Revolutionary Road did. I expected this to be a “Oh weren’t the 1950s reactionary and conformist and aren’t the suburbs stultifying and sterile and aren’t children an intolerable burden? Oh when, when, will we be free to remove the little drooling, dribbling, mewling creatures from our lives without guilt or mess on the carpets?” bore.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The year is 1955. The place is Westchester, New York. The film starts with Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) going at it, and not in a fun way. The Mrs. had hoped that a little community theater would enliven her dull middle-class existence; but, alas, no such luck. She’s still miserable, and Mr. Wheeler, trapped in a gray-cubicle, gray-making sales job, is no happier, simply better at hiding it, taking vitalizing jollies where he can get them, like on top of one of the department secretaries.

One day Mrs. Wheeler gets a bright idea: Why not sell the house, pack up the kids, and move to Paris? They had always dreamed of an exciting, creative, unconventional life — then the kids came along. And there went that. But the kids are still young and Mrs. Wheeler can always get a secretarial position with NATO or the consulate or some other interesting government agency, while Mr. Wheeler follows his bliss. (That Mr. Wheeler is short on creative endowments or imagination proves to be but a temporary obstacle.)

Suddenly, they can breathe again. A new beginning! The passion in their marriage is reignited, on a kitchen countertop at that! Wheeler even manages to give his mind-numbing job a little more attention, producing a killer memo that will reverberate throughout the halls of upper management.

But reality cometh. First, Wheeler gets an offer for a better, more interesting, and higher-paying job. Suddenly, he sees a future outside the cubicle. Then Mrs. Wheeler announces that their ecstatic romp on the Formica has had its own consequences. She’s pregnant.

But that needn’t put the kabosh on their plans, right? Mrs. Wheeler knew this girl who did this thing that, in the first 12 weeks, is perfectly safe.

Mr. Wheeler is repulsed at the idea, as he is at the insinuation that their first child was an “accident” that altered the trajectory of their bohemian lifetstyles, landing them north of the Bronx.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Wheeler cannot return to the life she despises. Especially after she learns that Mr. Wheeler has been unfaithful. (Not to be outdone, she has her own fling in the front seat of a car, in part out of revenge, in part, one presumes, simply to act out and do something naughty.)

The film is meant to be tragic but succeeds in only being phony. Not that I should have expected anything better from director Sam Mendes, who gave us one of the phoniest Oscar-winning films of all time, American Beauty. He has a gift for setting up two-dimensional characters to play out cliches of American middle-class life and the maddening sterility that is married life. What makes Revolutionary Road particularly insufferable is that it lies. It wants you to believe that this is about a man who is trapped in his own head, trapped by conventional notions of what it means to be a husband and father and a “real man.” In fact, it’s just about abortion.

If they’re feeling bored and lackluster, why move to Paris? Why not rent out the house and take up residence in Greenwich Village for a year, put the kids in Little Red Schoolhouse? The Mrs. could still get a job at the UN or something, supporting her hubby, and he could mingle among the Beats and see if in fact there is any more to him than what he has to offer in his present employment.

Well, for the same reason Paris is off. The baby. The baby is the problem. A pregnant woman isn’t getting a job anywhere, at least not for very long, in 1955. So he was going to have to find other work while Mrs. Wheeler continued to play mommy. And what’s the point in that? Mrs. Wheeler is willing to take a lowly office-support job just so long as it gets her out of the house and away from the children.

The problem is the children. And Mrs. Wheeler’s self-induced abortion is the pro-choice left’s way of expressing the horror of the pre-Roe days. In 1995, Mrs. Wheeler would have just had the abortion at a hospital, with or without Mr. Wheeler’s consent, and if it destroyed their marriage, so what? Mrs. Wheeler would dump the husband and go pursue a more interesting life—convention and commitments be damned.

The film is bracketed by a character’s desire to turn off the chatter of another. As the film opens, Mrs. Wheeler keeps asking Mr. Wheeler to please stop talking. Mr. Wheeler’s desire to talk things out drives her crazy. After all, if you’re not going to do something, what is the point of talking? Talking is just a way of persuading someone to accept the status quo. At the end of the film, Mr. Givings, husband of the chatty real estate agent who sold the Wheelers their house, turns his hearing aid off so he does not have to listen to the Mrs. prattle on about the new couple who have moved into the Wheeler house on Revolutionary Road.

That’s what trapped people do. They turn off. But Mrs. Wheeler couldn’t live with being trapped. So she decided to do something. She decided to move to Paris. And when that proved impossible, she killed her baby. And herself with it. See? The 1950s and all they represent were death for women.

A word should be said about Leonardo DiCaprio. While he has a moment or two of surprising emotional intensity, I couldn’t help but think how much more interesting this thing would have been with a young Jack Nicholson in his role, who DiCaprio seems to be channeling at times. As for the whole Titanic reunion thing, that fizzles very quickly. Winslet and DiCaprio, despite being close friends in real life, don’t have a particularly engaging chemistry, at least not in this vehicle.

Ironically, of the entire cast, only Michael Shannon, who appears in only two or three scenes, managed an Oscar nod, for Best Supporting Actor. He plays the Givings’ son, fresh out of the psych ward for almost assaulting his obnoxious mother. Despite his dysfunctions, he manages to speak his electric-shock-charred mind in an intimidatingly frank manner. In fact, he will not stop talking. He envies the Wheelers’ choice to escape to Paris, and becomes enraged when their plans change, calling Mr. Wheeler out as something less than a man. Shannon manages to be both amusing and terrifying. His character is also completely incredible in the literal sense of the word. But so is everything else about this film. So why not throw him a bone with a nomination?

It’s possible to make a moving film about a marriage that comes undone by unreasonable expectations or responsibilities unevenly shared. And it’s possible to make that story tragic by demonstrating that it’s a lack of an inner life underlying the couple’s undoing. Revolutionary Road is not that film, because Revolutionary Road has no inner life. Only clichés and cant.

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Oh by the Way: Kate Winslet, who is nominated for and favored to win the Best Actress Oscar, not for the film under review but for The Reader, is suffering some blowback from critics. Now that people have actually seen The Reader, many have found it to be as ludicrous as I did. Some critics are even reading the film as a rationalization for the average German’s inability to read the signs of the times in the Nazi era, to comprehend the enormity of the regime’s crimes.

The film, set in postwar West Germany, does not excuse Winslet’s character’s crimes by saying she was illiterate and so shouldn’t be held responsible. In fact, the film, through the voice of a Holocaust survivor’s daughter, explicitly rejects this interpretation. Whether Hannah Schmitz, who during the war was jointly responsible for the deaths of 300 Jewish concentration-camp victims, is a metaphor for a “blind” German society as a whole is another matter.

The Reader begins with Miss Schmitz’s semi-seduction of a 15-year-old boy, Michael, who, frankly, is already smitten with her. In exchange for sex, he has to read to her from his schoolbooks. Even as girls his own age pursue him, the young man can think of nothing and no one but the mysterious, laconic woman he is desperately in love with.

One day, Schmitz disappears. Years pass. In the mid-1960s, Michael, grown up and in law school (and now played by Ralph Fiennes), attends the trial of accused war criminals. There in the dock is Hannah Schmitz. He is both horrified and brokenhearted, especially when it becomes apparent that she would rather take the brunt of the punishment for a heinous crime than admit she’s illiterate and incapable of having signed the order that supposedly implicates her as having taken the initiative in 300 murders.

As Schmitz sits in jail, resigned to her fate, Michael picks up where they left off, sending her taped recordings of great books, which she uses to teach herself to read. Yet he refuses to engage in any other form of communication with her, which proves to be her undoing, even as she is about to be freed from prison on day in the 1980s. (Another metaphor? The unwillingness of subsequent generations to understand the war generation?)

The film was the focus of controversy before it was released because the central character is basically committing statutory rape, at least by the standards of modern American law. But because it’s an older woman and a younger man, well, most guys would envy his access to a mature woman’s body, so what’s the real harm? Had the genders been flipped, the film would have gone straight to HBO, if it had been made at all.

What makes The Reader ludicrous — aside from the laughable makeup job that makes an aging Winslet look like she’s been dipped in a vat of acid — is that the boy never figures out that Hannah wants to be read to because she can’t read herself. Whenever you have a plot point that is obvious to everyone in the theater but goes completely unnoticed by a central character privy to the same information, you know you’re in trouble. Also, given that the Germany of the 1930s was arguably the most literate nation on earth, why the illiteracy metaphor? Because blindness would have been too too obvious a symbol?)

Throw in that we’re expected to have some kind of sympathy for a woman unable to understand the moral enormity of what she was complicit in — the murder of 300 innocent people — and the filmmakers should not be surprised that people leave the theater asking, “Why was I watching this?”

Winslet, to her credit, manages to something with very little. Unlike her performance in Revolutionary Road, which could have been duplicated by any of a number of capable performers, she manages to evince an almost Rainman-like emotional blankness with a quiet desperation.

To what end? is the question. The human side of genocide, perhaps?

Ugh.

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8 Responses to Two Strange Reviews: Revolutionary Road and The Reader

  1. Well, thanks for sparing me the agony of even thinking of watching either movie. I don’t know why, but most modern movies leave me utterly disinterested, even from their trailers.

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  2. Ellyn says:

    Kinda makes me glad I went to see Mall Cop…

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  3. kerner says:

    Hmmmm…since I was born in the suburbs in 1955, this is a little scary. But I live in the city (ok, not a very big city by your standards, but still a city) and I fathered 5 children and I am self employed in a profession I enjoy. Besides…how are children a stumbling block to all this? Leo couldn’t have just taken the foreign service exam or something?

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  4. Sally Thomas says:

    Not that I was going to see either of these movies anyway, because they’re still showing Logan’s Run at the theater in my town. But I’m glad to know better than to be tempted to throw my money away on the reinforcement of an entire set of attitudes I spend my life trying to undo in people I know, who will probably all go to see Revolutionary Road, rave about it, and suggest pointedly that I see it.

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  5. subcutaneous says:

    in the “putting on the kabosh” paragraph, you write “in the first 12 months”. I’m sure you mean “first 12 weeks”?

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