Friday, January 16, 2009

The Paper Dolls of Revolutionary Road

I have been a faithful fan of Kate Winslet. I thought her performance as charming neurotic in Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was spot-on and award-worthy. I felt her pain in "Little Children", and admired her ability to shine alongside Harvey Keitel in Jane Campion's "Holy Smoke". She's offered brilliant performances in many thought-provoking films, not least of them her first ("Heavenly Creatures"), but Revolutionary Road strikes me as a startling regression.

At first, I thought my eyelids were drooping because of problematic acting and a lack of cinematic chemistry. Every line Dicaprio and Winslet screamed at each other seemed stagey and forced. Then, as the narrative developed, I realized the real issue was that Winslet didn't have a legitimate character to portray. She was simply trying to bring depth and soul to a two-dimensional crock of shit. Winslet played The Neurotic, one of the paper dolls women get to be in film.

From the get-go of "Revolutionary Road", it's April Wheeler (Winslet's character) that's being antagonistic while Frank Wheeler (Dicaprio) struggles to comfort her and eventually angers at her inconsolability. April cheats on her husband with his best friend, kills their unborn baby, screams at her daughter, whines and cries about living in a big house and constantly drinking martinis, and has a lifelong dream of going to Paris because her husband once said it was the most interesting city in the world.

The viewer rarely sees her smile or laugh and when she does it's hardly endearing as she follows it up with a bout of sobbing and screaming, or a stony silence and curt words most likely dealing with the failure of the family plan to move to Paris. She's petty, overly emotional, selfish, and at times palpably more insane than the gimmicky character of John Givings, the previously institutionalized son of Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates). She's the emotionally unstable wife with a resilience factor of zero. We're given no background, no motive, no understanding of her anger and disappointment, only a whirlwind of screaming, pouting, and eventually: blood.

The other three prominent female characters are even worse off in the arena of depth. Mrs. Givings is The Nag, an obtrusive real estate agent whose own husband doesn't want to listen to her constant gossip and complaints. She constantly worries about propriety, barges in on the Wheelers at the worst possible moments, and lets her son insult her and yell at her to just shut up. Then we have The Bimbo, a secretary at Frank Wheeler's company, who's made to look so dumb as to perhaps have undergone a lobotomy as a job requirement. Her vapid statements, easy nature, and wide-eyed expressions are hard to swallow after thirty seconds of her time on screen. And last, but not least, we have The Devout in the character of Mrs. Campbell, a tame woman who tries hard to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, is easily shaken, and seems all-too-happy to be glued to her husband's hip.

I'm only disappointed because I thought Revolutionary Road was going to be a movie that would give me insight into the 50s, a film that would show me two complicated souls struggling to be independent in a decade known for its oppressive environment of conformity.

Instead, I got four paper dolls, a weak imitation of the women I know who lived during that very interesting decade.

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