April 13, 2010

Brokaw's Revolutionary Road


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

The dreary, paralyzed 50s corporate world of Sam Mendes' new movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet makes "MAD MEN's" luxuriously glossy environs look and feel like heaven-on-earth. Watching Leo dictating a corporate brochure in his tiny windowless cubicle just isn't the same as observing Don doodling ideas in his polished and handsomely appointed midtown office. Though the two men are less than a decade apart in age (30 and 30-something) and era (mid 50s and early 60s),both are railing against lives riddled with angst, insecurity and a terrible feeling that materialistic success is a portal to hell.


Don commutes from a spacious, leafy, two-story home in Ossining that he shares with his wife Betty and their two young children. In "Revolutionary Road," adapted from Richard Yates' first 1961 novel, Leo and Kate are a little further up in Connecticut, in the same kind of spacious, leafy digs with their two young children. Neither woman has a vocation and each has an unfulfilling avocation--Betty rides horses, Kate acts in community theater. Both women are shown having sexual flings outside their marriages. Both are pregnant again near the close of the film and the second tv series.


Don and Leo--plus every other man on their New York-bound commuter trains (and men are the only people pictured commuting to work) dress the same--white shirts, rep ties, quiet suits, demure hats. Both eye their next potential sexual conquests on the elevators going up to their offices. Both have an inordinate fondness for straight-up gin martinis. Both are shown bedding other women in the afternoons at their lovers' apartments. Are you starting to think these two soap operas may be a little alike?


There are some differences. You know Don's checkered background. Leo is working at the headquarters of Knox Business Machines (probably no relation to the Knox Reeves Minneapolis ad agency of the era but you never know). He's in corporate communications with another bunch of cubicle guys who don't look or talk like the sharpest pencils in the box, writing collateral and rewriting the agency's efforts. Leo's father labored for 20 years at Knox as a forgotten salesman up in Yonkers. Leo initially turns down an offer from a Knox top manager to join the launch team that's going to put electronic computers into every business office. Leo's thinking about moving his family to Paris without having a clue what he'll do there, whereas Don can get away with walking away from his job and home for days at a time, to try and figure out his next life.


Don and Betty seem to have well-off and roughly compatible neighbors, but Leo and Kate's most prominent visitors are the town's dotty real estate lady, her mostly deaf husband, and their mentally unstable grown son. Betty and Don get to come into New York for a lot of upscale drinking and dining on the agency expense account. Kate and Leo, by contrast, spend their evenings at a local roadhouse with the couple next door, swing dancing to Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks. (In one of "Revolutionary Road's" few authentic scenes, Kate is drawn to her hulk of a neighbor on the dance floor, a prelude to their quick sexual tryst.) Don and Betty rarely raise their voices much above a monotone when they're lamenting their collapsing marriage, but Leo and Kate spend much of "Revolutionary Road" ranting at each other at sonic stun. The misery index for this mawkish movie is about the same as its television counterpart, but the film's decibel level is ten times higher. If you add in the broken furniture and shattered belongings, it's maybe twelve times higher.


"Revolutionary Road" comes to a sad and bittersweet ending, a kind of role reversal for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet from "Titanic," their previous appearance together and the largest grossing film of all time. But whatever else "Titanic" was, it was first and foremost a love story that transcended its tragic core and that moviegoers of all ages embraced. "Revolutionary Road" is no more a love story than "MAD MEN." It's a cultural artifact. Sam Mendes made another cultural artifact--the Oscar-sweeping "American Beauty--that was infinitely more poetic, dramatic and moving. "Revolutionary Road" is a dead-end street.


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