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‘Revolutionary Road’ offers somber caveat to nonconformists
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Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Wheeler and Kate Winslet stars as April Wheeler in “Revolutionary Road.”
One thing “Revolutionary Road” is not is the “feel-good movie of the year.”

Those already depressed or in an unsatisfactory relationship who may be looking for an uplifting cinematic experience should probably avoid this film. Really.

Just because it’s not a happy film doesn’t mean it’s not a good film, though.

Its stark portrait of a malfunctioning marriage and its exploration of the two imperfect participants go far beyond typical melodrama. Between the bitter battles punctuated with regrettable affronts and the protracted periods made excruciating by things left unsaid, “Revolutionary Road” reveals the calamity which ensues when compliance and conventionality clash with romantic expectations.

Reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the lead roles, the film follows Frank and April, a young married couple living in Eisenhower’s America of the mid-1950s. While their first, fateful meeting is shown, most of the on-screen drama takes place several years later. It quickly becomes evident that the couple has moved into a new house on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs of Connecticut, that Frank has taken on a rather routine job that he doesn’t particularly enjoy and that April, who had hoped to become an actress, also has made sacrifices to raise a family.

Believing themselves governed by higher ideals and destined for greater lives than their neighbors, neither Frank nor April is blissfully content as their actions convey.

It is April, however, who seizes upon a plan to put things right: She convinces Frank to move to Paris so that they can follow their dreams and shed the traditionalist, unadventurous lifestyle of middle class America. Her escape route, tragically, is fraught with obstacles and entanglements.

DiCaprio and Winslet, working together for the first time since 1997’s “Titanic,” are critical to the film’s success. Their individual performances, coupled with their undeniable on-screen chemistry, lifts “Revolutionary Road” above rank-and-file period pieces. While both excel in their roles, Winslet had the more difficult part to play and she owned it from the start. She’s already won a handful of awards, including the Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globe Awards. It would not be surprising to see her walk away with an Oscar, too.

Make no mistake, though: Watching DiCaprio and Winslet engage in marital skirmishes is unpleasant and unsettling. The sympathies of the audience vacillate between Frank and April, perhaps because most people can empathize with each extreme viewpoint. Who hasn’t felt the urge to follow a dream? Who hasn’t felt the need to embrace realism?

Kathy Bates provides a conservative perspective as the real estate agent responsible for incarcerating the Wheelers in their suburban prison. Portraying the judgmental, yet quirky, Helen Givings, Bates never falters and, in one scene in particular, rivals Winslet’s delineation as the prototypical tortured soul.

Michael Shannon’s role as Helen Givings’ son, John, may be small but it is far from minor. First as a supporter, then as a dissenter as the Wheelers’ plans unravel, Shannon delivers what may well be the most devastating line in the film.

Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour portray the Wheelers’ neighbors, Milly and Shep Campbell. At first glance, the Campbells seem to symbolize everything April wants to renounce.

Some may find fault with obsolete mannerisms or hackneyed truisms expressed in exaggerated fits of emotion. Keep in mind that what is cliché now was not cliché then and what is unfashionable now may have been commonplace then. Sam Mendes, in fact, is to be commended on vividly capturing the look and feel of the time period without overstating it.

Relentless and riveting, the two-car pile-up on “Revolutionary Road” is as mesmerizing as it is depressing. It’s a painful study of submission to traditionalism, of unfortunate choices and festering dreams made more fascinating by the outstanding performances of a versatile cast.
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