February 2, 2009

Little Houses Made of Ticky-Tacky

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Revolutionary Road opens with a party scene: a woman who wants to be an actress meets a man who doesn’t quite know what he wants to be, so long as he gets to be interesting, and she finds this to be extremely alluring. They dance, lock eyes and the scene cuts to many years later. After vows, two children and a house in the suburbs, April Wheeler has failed as an actress, her husband Frank has taken a meaningless office job and the disillusionment of the “hopeless emptiness” has settled into the wreckage that’s become of their beautiful, beloved ideal.
Most movies, books and television melodrama plotlines tell the same story: a variation of the struggles two people must overcome to finally be together. Whether the final destination be the first kiss, the first “I love you,” the proposal, or the wedding, it’s all really the same story, and it always seems to end right there at the beginning when the audience can breathe a sigh of relief that their hero and heroine have found each other against the odds. With that first hint of stability, we’re satisfied.
Revolutionary Road, adapted from Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, is a courageous look at what happens a few years after the director makes his final cut, reminding us that there’s a middle that comes after the beginning. April and Frank Wheeler fall in love with the idea of each other and of leading a certain kind of life. When the reality never quite catches up with the ideas upon which they shaped their world and expectations, they find themselves overwhelmed by the disappointment of each other and their situation.
They were supposed to be bohemians and intellectuals leading lives marked by meaning and superior potential. The self-awareness that they were supposedly “special” made it alright for them to move to the suburbs and have a family and look and act just like everyone else. Day after day, Frank could commute back and forth to his meaningless job and April could perform all the menial tasks of a ’50s housewife, so long as they were in on the joke. But after a while, everyone’s forced to admit that what looks like a dog and sounds like a dog probably is a dog, and, despite their delusions, the walls they had built up to separate themselves from the emptiness of suburban mediocrity looked just like the ones on every other house on the block.
We all hold ideas about the people in our lives, shaped from first impressions and selective memories about everything that comes after, but rarely are they accurate pictures of who others really are. Seldom do our ideas about the people we love allow for weaknesses or even change. Wasn’t Frank Wheeler supposed to be a romantic? The kind of man with passion and integrity who valued a life lived with meaning? Wasn’t April supposed to be an intellectual? An artist? Stimulating? Whimsical? Had years of entrenchment bled them dry of who they once were, or were they never even really who the other thought them to be to begin with? Revolutionary Road is a haunting exploration of the morose aftermath that follows the point where you can no longer reconcile what’s in your head with what’s in front of you.