Nothing to Say and No Way to Say It: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road movie poster


The first few min­utes of Sam Mendes’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road fea­ture one of the bold­est jump cuts this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frank (Leonar­do DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet cute out of a crowd of Beat­nik hip­sters at a loft par­ty. Like any flirt­ing young cou­ple, how each choos­es to intro­duce them­self com­pris­es a promise as to whom each will become should they grow up togeth­er. The glam­orous April sim­ply says she is study­ing to be an actress, as if that is all Frank needs to know. He in turn cracks wise about toil­ing in noth­ing jobs hold­ing him back from vague­ly-defined great aspi­ra­tions. After this very brief scene, Mendes jump cuts to sev­er­al years lat­er to find Frank and April mar­ried in sub­ur­bia with two kids. An old­er Frank pri­vate­ly cringes dur­ing April’s weak debut in a com­mu­ni­ty the­ater pro­duc­tion. It turns out she’s not a great actress after all, but cursed to be just smart and sen­si­tive enough to know it. Her sense of defin­i­tive fail­ure and his frus­tra­tion at her frus­tra­tion com­busts into a blis­ter­ing road­side argu­ment on par with any of the cat­a­clysmic rows between Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton in Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf?.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary RoadYou were just some boy who made me laugh at a par­ty once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

Frank and April’s all-con­sum­ing pride escapes as bare­ly-veiled con­de­scen­sion toward their peers in the office and on their sub­ur­ban street. They both share mutu­al­ly incom­pat­i­ble sens­es of supe­ri­or­i­ty, feel­ing des­tined for some­thing great with­out know­ing what, or hav­ing any obvi­ous nat­ur­al tal­ent to nur­ture. It pro­vides no sat­is­fac­tion when Frank does even­tu­al­ly man­i­fest an apti­tude in mar­ket­ing, some­thing they both view as dis­ap­point­ing and beneath them. Who or what propped them up with this sense of supe­ri­or­i­ty? Are we to read their hubris as a cri­tique of the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion (Frank is a World War II vet­er­an, an expe­ri­ence he roman­ti­cizes even while acknowl­edg­ing his sheer ter­ror at the time)? This gen­er­a­tional the­o­ry would be sup­port­ed by how the old­er Giv­ings fam­i­ly views them — but more on the Giv­ings lat­er. Or were Frank and April’s egos boost­ed by over­prais­ing par­ents? We hear much of Frank’s late father, who toiled in obscu­ri­ty for years at the same firm where Frank now finds him­self trapped, but any oth­er rel­a­tives are whol­ly absent from their lives. Per­haps if Frank and April had been born a few gen­er­a­tions lat­er, they would be the sort of over­con­fi­dent per­son­al­i­ties drawn to com­pete on real­i­ty TV shows.

After April gives up on her dream of act­ing after her dis­as­trous debut, she latch­es onto a fan­ta­sy of mov­ing to Paris and sup­port­ing Frank so he may find his. But Frank is even less evolved than she; he nev­er spec­i­fies what he imag­ines him­self becom­ing. Writer? Politi­cian? Artist? He has noth­ing to say, and no way to say it. Their Gal­lic escape plan is not ful­ly thought through, and Frank nev­er real­ly com­mits any­way. He’s clever enough to excel amongst the duller cowork­ers with whom he shares dai­ly steak and mar­ti­ni lunch­es. He becomes fur­ther ensnared by suc­cess in the busi­ness world, as mea­sured by income, the sex­u­al avail­abil­i­ty of naïve office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking lad­der of pro­mo­tion.

Michael Shannon in Revolutionary RoadHope­less empti­ness. Now you’ve said it. Plen­ty of peo­ple are onto the empti­ness, but it takes real guts to see the hope­less­ness.”

One flaw of the film is dia­logue that some­times strays from nat­u­ral­ism into the nov­el­is­tic. Even in the midst of the fiercest of argu­ments, April is still poised enough to deliv­er zingers like “No one for­gets the truth, Frank, they just get bet­ter at lying” and “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a par­ty once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

I promised to return to the Giv­ings fam­i­ly, whom I believe are the key to under­stand­ing the film. Helen Giv­ings (Kathy Bates) gen­tly teach­es April how to be a good house­wife, offer­ing pas­sive aggres­sive cri­tiques of such frip­peries as lawn main­te­nance. But she slow­ly reveals a long­ing admi­ra­tion for the Wheel­ers as an ide­al Amer­i­can nuclear fam­i­ly: a nice, good-look­ing, suc­cess­ful, mod­el young cou­ple in love (their coarse neigh­bors the Camp­bells also ide­al­ize the Wheel­ers). Helen hopes that some of their pix­ie dust might rub off on her trou­bled son John (Michael Shan­non), a math­e­mati­cian and intel­lec­tu­al brought low by men­tal ill­ness and elec­troshock ther­a­py (whether it is the dis­ease or the cure that ails him most is a ques­tion that bleak­ly amus­es him). John proves to have the cold­est, clear­est, stark­est view of real­i­ty, and cuts right through all the sub­terfuge and dou­ble­s­peak with which these Amer­i­can nuclear fam­i­lies delude them­selves. Every­thing he says is right, but trag­i­cal­ly, Frank and April inter­pret the bit­ter­ly dam­aged man as a kin­dred spir­it and not as what he is: a holy fool (in the sense of idiot savant) that damn­ing­ly illus­trates their faults.

Kathy Bates in Revolutionary RoadHelen admires the Wheel­ers’ splen­did pic­ture win­dow look­ing out on Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road

In some ways, the final scene is the most dev­as­tat­ing, and it doesn’t even fea­ture the Wheel­ers at all. The Giv­ings chat at home alone, long after the Wheel­ers revealed them­selves to be fatal­ly frac­tious and tor­tured. We wit­ness Helen rewrite his­to­ry, belit­tling the Wheel­ers in terms of their abil­i­ty to main­tain the val­ue of their home (read: their fam­i­ly). As she’s busy eras­ing her emo­tion­al stake in the Wheel­ers, her hus­band Howard (Richard Eas­t­on) turns off his hear­ing aid to lit­er­al­ly drown her out. He gazes at her emp­ti­ly, dis­pas­sion­ate­ly, dead inside. We might imag­ine their mar­riage sur­vived the kind of emo­tion­al flash­point that destroyed the Wheel­ers, but trapped them in a cold, love­less life togeth­er.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD and nov­el by Richard Yates from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008 movie poster


If the least one expects of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it mere­ly ful­fill the promise of its title, then please move right along, for the earth stands still only a few moments. It is, how­ev­er, a far big­ger pro­duc­tion than the 1951 orig­i­nal direct­ed by Robert Wise (read The Dork Report review), even account­ing for the infla­tion of film­mak­ing tech­nol­o­gy and audi­ence expec­ta­tion for spec­ta­cle. As if to over­com­pen­sate for the original’s now admit­ted­ly amus­ing implau­si­bil­i­ties and the sil­ly giant robot and fly­ing saucer, it tries too hard to impress with too many uncon­nect­ed ideas and exces­sive hus­tle and bus­tle. It’s even rather inap­pro­pri­ate­ly macho, with more uncon­vinc­ing dig­i­tal heli­copters and mil­i­tary hard­ware than a typ­i­cal Michael Bay movie. At least it’s much, much bet­ter than the dis­as­trous Inva­sion (the third offi­cial remake of The Inva­sion of the Bodys­natch­ers).

It does get off to a good start with a pro­logue in which a lone moun­tain climber (Keanu Reeves) dis­cov­ers a glow­ing orb in 1928 India. The sequence is mys­te­ri­ous and inter­est­ing, but ulti­mate­ly unim­por­tant to the plot. We lat­er learn that the orb was an alien probe that copied the climber’s DNA, from which to grow a sur­ro­gate body for the alien Klaatu (Reeves again) decades lat­er. Even the most basic plau­si­bil­i­ty is vio­lat­ed as humans dis­sect his alien body with­out bio­suits or any kind of quar­an­tine at all. One won­ders if ear­li­er drafts of the screen­play involved Klaatu’s cap­tors ini­tial­ly misiden­ti­fy­ing him as a miss­ing per­son from 1928. A missed oppor­tu­ni­ty would be a scene in which the aged orig­i­nal adven­tur­er comes face-to-face with an alien mim­ic­k­ing his youth­ful self. But as it stands, this whole sub­plot acts as a dis­trac­tion. The orig­i­nal movie sim­ply pre­sent­ed the alien as humanoid (if a lit­tle unusu­al­ly tall and angu­lar) and that was enough. The notion of a alien being reborn in a new body is inter­est­ing but an unnec­es­sary com­pli­ca­tion, one that only rais­es ques­tions unre­lat­ed to the cen­tral themes. Klaatu is lucky his tem­plate was the hand­some Reeves (at one point, he steals a schlumpy guy’s suit and it fits as if it were tai­lored for him). Sup­pos­ed­ly this body is human, but he exerts super­pow­ers includ­ing the trans­mu­ta­tion of elec­tric­i­ty into some kind of sketchi­ly-described life force. In this respect, the orig­i­nal is bet­ter; Klaatu out­ward­ly looks like us, peri­od, end of sto­ry. Isn’t that enough? Anoth­er extra­ne­ous idea, super­flu­ous to the core sto­ry: Klaatu’s giant omnipo­tent robot com­pan­ion Gort is now com­prised of a swarm of nanobots. Why have both a giant robot and itsy-bit­sy nanobots? Pick one idea and run with it.

Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood StillKeanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still

But we’re get­ting ahead of our­selves; first we must ful­fill anoth­er genre cliché. The Day the Earth Stood Still lines up after the likes of The Hap­pen­ing, The Day After Tomor­row, A.I.: Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Deep Impact, Watch­men, and Clover­field (the list goes on, and on…) to take anoth­er stab at dec­i­mat­ing poor New York City. When human­i­ty detects an uniden­ti­fied object set to strike Man­hat­tan, Dr. Michael Grain­er (Man Men’s Jon Hamm) assem­bles a crack team of diverse experts includ­ing astro­bi­ol­o­gist Helen Ben­son (Jen­nifer Con­nel­ly) to fly around in black heli­copters and gawp help­less­ly at all the spe­cial effects. Luck­i­ly, for the moment at least, the object turns about to be a space­craft. In 1951, alien emis­sary Klaatu (Michael Ren­nie) went to Wash­ing­ton like Mr. Smith. In 2008, this Klaatu fig­ures the place to make a grand entrance is Manhattan’s Cen­tral Park (nev­er mind that the Unit­ed Nations head­quar­ters is on the East Side). Fans of com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed destruc­tion of the sort in which Roland Emmerich traf­fics will be pleased to see Cen­tral Park forcibly land­scaped before the movie is over. Dur­ing the final cli­max in the Park, I’m pret­ty sure the prin­ci­pals hide under the exact same bridge as the sur­vivors at the end of Clover­field.

Like the orig­i­nal, it’s cred­it­ed as being based on the 1940 short sto­ry “Farewell to the Mas­ter” by Har­ry Bates. Its cin­e­mat­ic touch­stones include The Broth­er From Anoth­er Plan­et and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But it shares a crit­i­cal­ly flawed plot ele­ment with the more recent Watch­men (read The Dork Report review). In the lat­ter, mor­tal hero­ine Silk Spec­tre must con­vince Dr. Man­hat­tan, an ambiva­lent non­hu­man that couldn’t care less, to save the world. Klaatu arrives on Earth to receive the report of an ear­li­er agent, who con­firms humans are self destruc­tive by nature. That’s enough for Klaatu to begin to purge the plan­et, but the agent goes on and tries to impress upon him human’s com­plex­i­ty. Klaatu is unswayed. Helen and her son Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pin­kett-Smith) try to do the same and suc­ceed just as Silk Spec­tre did, but in both cas­es the audi­ence can’t quite under­stand how their argu­ments go through to supe­ri­or beings one step away from god­hood. Because she’s pret­ty, and her kid whines so much that Klaatu caved in just to shut him the hell up? Per­son­al­ly, if I was an alien judg­ing human­i­ty, and I met such an insane­ly annoy­ing kid, I would purge the plan­et too. The movie would mer­it at least one more Dork Report star if the kid hadn’t been in it.

Jennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood StillJen­nifer Con­nel­ly in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Jen­nifer Con­nel­ly is sad­ly wast­ed, again. As in Ang Lee’s oth­er­wise under­rat­ed Hulk, she’s rel­e­gat­ed to sec­ond-billing below the com­put­er effects. The great Kathy Bates fares even worse in a role any­one could have played. As for the leg­endary John Cleese’s cameo as a mad sci­en­tist, I assume the idea was to cast a slight­ly kooky per­son­al­i­ty with a British accent to project intel­li­gence to dumb Amer­i­can audi­ences. But the for­mer­ly man­ic Cleese has mel­lowed out so much in his lat­er years that they could have just cast any old Brit.

The orig­i­nal Day the Earth Stood Still was quite obvi­ous­ly a Cold War para­ble, if a lit­tle mud­dled in its par­tic­u­lars. This ver­sion skirts the pol­i­tics of war, choos­ing instead to recast the basic premise as an eco-para­ble. Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s Hap­pen­ing (read The Dork Report review), New York’s Cen­tral Park is ground zero for an eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe. Part of Klaatu’s mis­sion is to save sam­ples of the Earth’s bios­phere, which the Sec­re­tary of Defense (Bates) explic­it­ly equates to the Bib­li­cal tale of Noah’s Ark.

Wikipedia notes the film was a large­ly green pro­duc­tion, in which the crew recy­cled or donat­ed props and cos­tumes, and uti­lized a cen­tral intranet to reduce paper waste. But with­in the sto­ry itself, for an alien con­cerned about clean­ing up the Earth, Klaatu is quite con­tent to ride back and forth from Man­hat­tan to New Jer­sey in a gas-guz­zling SUV (the man­u­fac­tur­er of which no doubt pro­vid­ed prod­uct place­ment).

Final­ly, some ques­tions: exact­ly how much of the world is dec­i­mat­ed in the end? How does Klaatu expect human­i­ty to clean up the plan­et when he’s already destroyed most of the infra­struc­ture? Imag­ine all the home­less­ness, star­va­tion, chaos, riot­ing, and loot­ing that must be dealt with before any gov­ern­ment could even begin to think about ozone holes or car­bon col­lec­tion. Also, Klaatu’s species has the tech­nol­o­gy to dis­in­te­grate all man­made mate­ri­als on an entire plan­et, but he total­ly dis­miss­es out of hand the idea of clean­ing up our pol­lu­tion for us, or at least lend­ing us the tech­nol­o­gy? The orig­i­nal Klaatu had more faith in human­i­ty.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.