Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pretense-olutionary Road

A few thoughts after seeing the latest Sam Mendes opus Revolutionary Road -- which I wanted to like far more than I actually did.  My wife and I went to the movie fully expecting to see a hot-blooded portrait of marital discord -- a vintage melodrama.  What we got instead was a cold, distant, picture that feels like a Douglas Sirk film stripped of all its immediacy and visceral power.  Revolutionary Road is an interesting movie.  It has two knockout performances by Leo and Kate (how she manages to sell all of her dialogue so convincingly is a mystery) but the movie suffers from acute formality and stylistic contrivance.  

Sam Mendes seems like a nice guy and he deserves credit for the scope of his ambitions, but we've been down this road before with him.  American Beauty is a movie designed to wrench every possible drop of irony and emotional resonance out of each character, each moment, but the movie succumbs to artiness and artifice.  The characters are etched in broad stereotypes.  The themes are broadcast transparently as if from a megaphone in bold technicolor -- just in case we, the audience, don't get it.  Road To Perdition?  I call it Road To Pretention.  

Revolutionary Road is afflicted with the same theatrical malady.  Everything from the production design down to the costumes is impeccably detailed, but the film unfolds like a relentless series of tableaus.  We are watching a representation of real emotions.  We are watching a representation of history, but we never feel we are in it.  We are always aware we are watching a movie.  Some of these images have a lasting impact.  DiCaprio's performance is haunting and so is Winslet's, but the movie doesn't feel lived in.  It doesn't feel organic.  Watching it is something like watching a puppet show, but focussing on the strings instead of the characters.  


  1. I'm inclined to agree with much of what you're saying, although I would still argue that, at the end of the day, the film gets at something deeply profound about human nature, which is more than I can say about the majority of what I saw this past year (not to mention the supremely overrated American Beauty and that phony bunk it was so intent on shoveling).

    The issue, I think, is that Mendes is not a particularly instinctual filmmaker. He comes from a theater background and while his movies tend to have meticulously composed aesthetics, that's not really the same as having a true cinematic eye. One of the things I loved about Kubrick was that virtually all of his films were adaptations, and yet he put his own stamp on each and every one of them. He ingested the material and made it his own. One review of Revolutionary Road I read said that the book's psychology is mostly internalized and Mendes never really figures out how to translate this into a visual language. That struck me as a telling point - particularly after watching the irony at the heart of Jarhead go completely over his head.

    Out of curiosity, what did you make of the Michael Shannon character?

    Nice job launching this blog, btw. I look forward to reading more of your commentary on film.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I think it's an interesting film to look at, precisely because the source material has so much impact. But you've hit it right on the nose: Mendes is not an instinctual or inherently cinematic filmmaker. Kubrick is a great comparison not only because he was a master of adaptation, but also because his cold, austere, style still had a charge that brought us into a story. The problem I'm having with far too many "serious" films is the lack of imagination and the lack of interpretation that goes into rendering worthy subjects like this one for the screen. More and more it seems as though earnest filmmakers like Mendes are content to coast on the merits of the initial idea and sit back while Oscar takes notice, without feeling any larger responsibility to entertain or build on the foundation of the text.

    I think Michael Shannon was deserving of the nomination and very memorable in the film. I also think Leo was snubbed for that matter. Still, I had a fundamental problem with the treatment of the Michael Shannon character. He was supposed to show us how the "crazy person" sees more than the so-called sane people in the film, but all of this was achingly on the nose with no subtlety or nuance.