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'Revolutionary Road' more performance than substance

Thank heavens for Michael Shannon blowing into Revolutionary Road, railing against the picket-fence delusions of a married couple on the rocks. Not only does he breathe life into a movie that needs it, he adds perspective to a story desperate for it.

In only two scenes, Shannon vents the frustrations of viewers who have already spent an hour disliking Frank and April Wheeler, two sides of the same self-centered coin in the mid 1950s, when conformity ruled. Frank commutes from their Connecticut home to a Manhattan job and occasional infidelity while April resentfully copes with children and nosy neighbors.

It's the life of the era and not enough for Frank or April. They plan to move to Paris where he will find himself, then they don't. They don't want another child, then maybe they do. Mood swings abound. The Wheelers are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, yet there are no Titanic sparks between them, only a prettier take on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Then Shannon arrives, playing John Givings, the schizophrenic son of a busybody (Kathy Bates) who forgives him for trying to kill her. Electroshock therapy has erased John's inhibitions and sharpened his baloney detector. John sees through Frank and April's superficial hope, knowing they'll never be happy.

"Plenty of people are onto the emptiness," he tells them, "but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."

And that, in a nutshell, is Revolutionary Road, with director Sam Mendes' pain-staking detail of stifled personalities making the emptiness clear early and often. Then the movie finally gains the courage to send the Wheelers over the edge after John admires them for having the chance to do so. It says something when the most sensible character in a melodrama is the only one certified crazy.

The bleakness of Revolutionary Road is lovingly wrought, with cinematographer Roger Deakins doting on gray-suited briefcase holders in lockstep and well-manicured suburbs where the American Dream goes to die. If anything, Mendes' movie looks too contemporary, when imitating 1950s cinematic style (like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven) might express his hindsight irony better.

You have to admire DiCaprio and Winslet for choosing this project for a reunion, without any resemblance to their Titanic roles. Both have greatly matured as actors over the past 10 years, to the point of making repetitive arguments and brooding silences compelling. These aren't "movie star" turns but earnestly crafted portrayals of despicable people. Not exactly blockbuster material.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

. Review

Revolutionary Road

Steve Persall's Grade: B-
Colette Bancroft's Grade: B-

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn, Zoe Kazan, Dylan Baker, Jay O. Sanders

Screenplay: Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates

Rating: R; profanity, sexual content, brief nudity

Running time: 119 min.

'Revolutionary Road' more performance than substance 01/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 12:00pm]

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