The Taser's Edge

What’s New in Suburban Angst? Nothing…in Revolutionary Road.

Holly and I love to hate the suburbs, and we love to love movies that hate the suburbs.  But this past Sunday night we were both let down by Revolutionary Road.  Our main complaint: the writing.  My feeling was that it was basically a late 1950s, early 1960s critique of the 1950s, a critique short of calling for wife-swapping to combat the suburban malaise (although that kind of happens), but clearly on the road there.  And its critique felt dated.  The novel by Richard Yates on which the movie is based was published in 1961, optioned for film in 1967 (this former fact according to Amazon, the latter according to  And it feels like 1961 judging the 1950s.

Perhaps I just want to have a conventional period piece, with 21st century anachronistic readings of history imposed on the past (Titanic, funnily enough, springs to mind).  Perhaps it’s an accomplishment to not only show a period, but to show its values and its flawed attempts to live out (or escape) those values within its time.  But that’s not really what this movie is either.  It’s not a mid-50s critique of the mid-50s; it’s an late 50s, early 60s critique of the mid-50s.  And it falls utterly flat in 2009.

We’ve already seen plenty of critiques of suburbia that actually speak to our experience and which speak of it well.  Edward Scissorhands, Blue Velvet, The Chumscrubber, The United States of Leland–all of these films do it better.  And then, of course, there’s American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ first suburban outing.  Compare Annette Bening’s performance in American Beauty to Kate Winslet’s in Revolutionary Road and you will see that Winslet does not really deserve an Oscar for this.  Despite Winslet being an excellent actress elsewhere, and despite Michael Shannon being pretty great as the crazy son of Kathy Bate’s character, no performance in Revolutionary Road comes close to Annette Bening’s or Kevin Spacey’s in American Beauty.  Warning: the following clip contains profanity, sexual references, and will make you sad.  If you want to avoid these things, then skip the clip.

In my mind, finally, the problem with Revolutionary Road may be that when the narrative core of your movie consists mostly of two massively discontented married characters drinking a lot, smoking a lot, and joining in a series of linked screamed conversations, you will always find yourself compared to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and you will always lose (although American Beauty holds its own, it doesn’t really go head-to-head with it):

You have to do a lot to make sure that your screaming is actually good acting, and I don’t think Winslet and DiCaprio pulled off anything particularly great, especially because their performances are so easily compared to those of Bening opposite Spacey in American Beauty and Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid?, the performances in the latter movie being two of the finest ever filmed. Interestingly, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid? was published in 1962, the year after Yates’ novel.  The movie of the play was released in 1966, the year before Yates’ book was optioned.  Over forty years later, Whose Afraid? still seems more timely and contemporary than anything in Revolutionary Road, a movie whose social critique was in many ways obsolete at its first viewing.

And since we’re on the topic of how great suburbia is–check this out.

2 Comments so far
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I’ve been considering taking it off our list because the reviews have been pretty negative. There’s nothing worse than watching people scream at each other on the screen unless it’s done well.

Comment by Terry

Spot on, my friend. Spot on.

Comment by bouquetofparentheses

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