Our whole existence here is based on this great premise that we’re special; that we’re superior to the whole thing. But we’re not. We’re just like everyone else. We’ve bought into the same, ridiculous delusion, April Wheeler says in “Revolutionary Road .
At a time when I was quite into John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy – constantly discussing in lengthy intervals his themes of sex, death and guilt – an eccentric friend handed me an old copy of a book entitled “Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; an obscure novelist I’ve never heard of at the point. “Forget about Updike, he said. “This book will crush you.
Well, it didn’t, not quite, but it was probably on of the most difficult novels I’ve ever read. Set in the 1950s, the novel centers on Frank and April Wheeler, a young Suburban married couple who have believed all their life that they’re superior to everyone else.
They eventually discover that they’re not, inhabiting a safe, insipid existence devoid of any passion, happiness or value. On a whim, April suggests they move to Paris. April will work as a secretary in the American Embassy in Paris, a position she hasn’t even applied for, while Frank will “have the time to find out what it is [he] actually wants to do.
The pair never go to Paris, and the story ends tragically.
Yates’ writing is piercing and absorbing; unwavering in its intent to strip its characters bare. Raw emotions are constantly brought to the surface. In several parts, Yates appears to be cannibalizing on the agony of his characters. In others, it seems as if he’s pouring in his own personal anguish, drawn from his vast reservoir of disappointments, frustrations and numerous bad marriages.
At some point, Yates’ sadistic callousness is too harsh to endure. Yet, at least during college years, I managed to keep my distance from Frank and April. I guess I couldn’t envision myself in Frank’s shoes. When you’re in school; the world seems rife with endless possibilities and great expectations. Leading a dead-end life like Frank and April seemed out of the question.
I never forgot the pair and the more years passed, the more the novel grew alarmingly relevant. When the long-awaited Sam Mendes (“American Beauty, “Road to Perdition ) cinematic adaptation arrived earlier this year in American theaters, I decided to give the novel another read. This time around, the experience was much more excruciating, perhaps because Frank and April seemed too real. The film version is praiseworthy, beautifully lensed by Mendes and features two powerhouse performances from former “Titanic lovebirds Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
Yet, as admirable as Mendes’s treatment is, the film, despite its intensity, feels watered down compared to Yates’ text.
The film hardly diverts from the source material. Frank and April first meet at a party. Frank is the overconfident handsome kid who’s just returned from the war. April is the strikingly beautiful young actress first seen smoking a cigarette alone in utter boredom. Their eyes meet and they instantly click.
Fast forward a number of years later, the pair is now married. Frank has become a sales “executive in the same machine company his father has wasted his life working in; one of the thousands of men commuting on the subway every day, sucked into the same exact suit and hat like everyone else.
April has become a stay-at-home mom with two kids after her stint as an actress proved to be a failure. Less than five minutes into the film, the tension between the two is apparent. After giving a bad performance of the young waitress dreaming of eloping to Paris in Robert E. Sherwood’s play “The Petrified Forest (a significant piece of information Mendes doesn’t reveal), Frank pats her back and tells her; “Well I guess it wasn’t a triumph or anything.
When April later comes up with the Paris suggestion, Frank initially agrees. After all, he has no stakes in the life they’re leading. His whole life has been nothing but a major disappointment; a big vacuum he’s immersed in.
April deceives herself, and her husband, into believing that the Paris pipe dream is the solution to all their problems. It’s wishful thinking though; April will never be happy, not until she starts deceiving herself into accepting this life of hers.
But Frank does, after he’s promoted in the same job he abhors. Rebellion takes courage, honesty with oneself and vision. Frank doesn’t possess these qualities, and with a wife and two kids he’s obliged to support, he chooses to conform.
Performances are astonishing. DiCaprio plays Frank with freighting physicality that accurately embodies his character’s vanity, self-centeredness and lack of self-worthiness.
Winselt is more subtle, articulating her character’s anger, vulnerability and devastating despair in the slightest of facial expressions and a penetrating eye even Frank occasionally can’t bring himself to confront.
Several critics have accused Mendes (Winslet’s real-life husband) of turning April into a martyr. The fact of the matter is, Winselt’s April is as selfish as Frank. April is too fixated on her quixotic quest for the Parisian dream; she’s not one of those altruistic mothers who put the interest of her children above her own. Fulfilling her maternal duties aside, she doesn’t seem to genuinely care for her children. She grows to hate Frank as much as he hates her, and the two have lost every ounce of sympathy they may have had for one another.
The primary problem with the film lies with Justin Haythe’s script. In the novel, Yates dissects his characters right down to the bone in a fashion that allows the reader to grow intimate with them and comprehend the roots of every action, gesture or impulsive jolt of rage they commit. In contrast, Haythe’s characterization is incomplete, leaving wide, vacant gaps for the viewers to fill.
Mendes is first-class director though and his touches are difficult to overlook. He vividly captures the “hopeless emptiness of the post-war American suburbia with its suffocating boundaries, fake bliss and overwhelming demands of conformity. Unlike the award-winning TV series “Mad Men, he refrains from indulging his story into the sumptuous details of the era, choosing instead to maintain his focus on his characters and the story.
First and foremost, the fact the film does work as a testament to Yates’ undiminished talent that has finally been recognized in the past few years after the novel began to enter the popular culture consciousness. None of Yates books sold more than 12,000 copies in his lifetime.
“Revolutionary Road is not a mere historical account of the Age of Anxiety. Frank and April are as timeless as Adam and Eve, except that they both have no sympathy for one another and they’ve never resided in an Eden before, nor will they. Like Adam and Eve, their curse is knowledge; a knowledge that prevents them from joining the herds and content themselves with the big house, cute children and monotonous rituals.
As much most of us would like to believe otherwise, we’re not that different from Frank and April. We wake up every day, submerge ourselves into the daily grind and pretend that our work, our life, is of some value or meaning, when in reality, it’s not.
Rationalization is the most fundamental tool for survival. Frank succumbed to its powers, marching in the infinite road to nothingness with a blindfolded eye. April’s crime is that she simply refused to.