DVD Review of Revolutionary Road
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/29/10
Herein the primary definition of tragedy: a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction. In many colloquial settings, the word is overused to describe anything bad that happens to anyone. An old man gets cancer and dies: a tragedy. A baby is struck ill with an incurable disease: a tragedy. A plumber is accidentally killed in an auto accident: a tragedy. But, definitionally, this simply is not so. If a great person falls, due to some great flaw in his character, then we are talking tragedy. The rise and fall of a despot could be tragedy. The rise and fall of a great artist, too. But the term has been so run into the ground that it is void of meaning in most usages, including reviews of literature or film. A classic example come sin reviews of novelist Richard Yates’ book, Revolutionary Road, and subsequently of its banal 2008 filmic turn. Why? Because a marriage ends when one of its protagonists (or antagonists?) commits suicide; even though that character has not a scintilla of greatness within her. So, wherein the tragedy?
In my review of the novel I wrote:
In many ways, the Wheelers are the literary equivalents of the central character in Woody Allen’s 1978 drama, Interiors. Played by the actress Mary Beth Hurt, the lead character is a young woman named Joey, the middle sister of three, who, despite wealth and privilege, a male companion who loves and supports her, still feels a desire to create- something, anything, even though she is clueless as to what to create, and her past attempts have been met with derision by those around her because she lacks any real talent for art. Joey is ordinary, but so ordinary that she lacks even the insight to grasp that she is ordinary. And the Wheelers are Joey squared. They are Joeys, but instead of crafting a novel of corresponding depth and complexity to ground their situation in an adult and compelling manner, Yates either took the easy way out, or was simply overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the novel form. Or, both. And, having skimmed over some of his short stories again, this seems the likeliest reality.
How else to explain the Dumbest Possible Action trope of the novel; wherein, just as in Hollywood films, the characters do not act as moderately competent human beings would, but act in dumb ways just to push the heavyhanded plot along? How else to explain the lack of depth in the characterizations, rather than the characters? Not the lack of the characters depths, but Yates’ inability to show that lack well? I.e.- the Wheelers may be talentless and clueless, but Yates did not have to portray such so stalely and ineptly. His cluelessness as to the depths of their cluelessness is akin to writing about characters being bored by crafting dull prose- that sort of recapitulation is simply not good writing. And, I could write a whole essay several times the length of this one just on how utterly clueless Yates is in his grasp of the female psyche. From April on down to the lesser female characters, Yates bases all of his female characters on how a male (with added tits and a clit) would react to a given situation. As thin as Frank and all the other male characters, save Shep, are limned, the females get off even worse- reacting either on histrionics, predictable stereotypes of female behavior, or plain old male fantasies run amok.
In short, the film recapitulates all of the books flaws, and then does even worse with its short-shrifting of Shep, possibly the book’s best character. In the film he is reduced to a lustful adulterer; nothing more, and his declarations of love for April seem bizarre, whereas in the book the reader understands his motives. On the plus side, whereas the book misses many opportunities to give a 1950s feel to the tale, the film succeeds much better, in large part due to a terrific film score by Thomas Newman. The cinematography, by Roger Deakins, is rather pedestrian. And, although it was not a great film, director Sam Mendes’ earlier American Beauty, covered much of the same ground as this film does, in the SUBURBS ARE HELL vein.
Overall, Revolutionary Road, the film, is at about the same artistic level as its progenitor novel, with a few more pluses and minuses. That its flaws were not corrected falls on the shoulders of Mendes, who has a tendency to make didactic films that proffer vacuous platitudes, while its pluses seem to be immanent in the fact that a lost era’s sensibilities and styles can be more easily and quickly conveyed via visual art rather than the written word. As an adaptation, the best way to have brought out the book’s strengths would have been to eliminate all the clichéd melodramatic moments and focused, instead, on a single event in their shared lives, then explored the characters more deeply. That adaptations do not do this more often is puzzling, since, as an adaptation, there is that very license to adapt the damned thing! That means reducing flaws and maximizing good qualities. Instead, however, Mendes is content to let his characters, incapable of rational thoughts beyond clichés, prattle on and on and on. But, fear not: take a cue from Howard Givings and….
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Critical Critics website.]
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