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I love me a good suburban malaise movie. I’ve lived in a variety of types of suburbs and now live in a city so I think I have a good handle on the pros and cons of suburban living. There can be a lot of interesting themes to mine there, not the least of which is that chase for the elusive “American dream.” That’s a broad subject to tackle though, especially for a viewer like me with a “quit yer whining” mentality.

But I really loved American Beauty so I thought Sam Mendes’s return to suburbia might be up my alley. Advanced word diminished my hopes, which even still turned out to be set way too high. The problem is that Revolutionary Road isn’t an effective portrait of the soul-sucking suburbs, it’s just a story of two tools in a bad marriage. They use the oppressive homogeneity of suburban living as an excuse for their crumbling relationship, a potentially interesting topic, but in the end they’re two pieces of work that shouldn’t be married to each other, if anyone, who just subject us to their yelling and whining for two hours. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else found themselves leaning towards one character or the other. I found myself sympathizing with him marginally more; he is a jerk but she’s truly unbalanced.

Revolutionary Road is billed to be this great acting movie, but to me it felt bogged down in its Serious Acting. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio never felt real (she was a worse offender than him). Or perhaps the style of precise enunciation and showy emotion missed its mark for me; regardless I was not terribly impressed. Supporting Actor nominee Michael Shannon steals every scene he’s in, but he feels like part of a completely different movie. His character also managed to sap any sense of subtlety out of the film; what better way to hammer a point home than to have a crazy person just come out and say it explicitly?

Not all of it is bad, however. A lot of it is quite interesting from a technical or more cerebral standpoint (y’know, if you don’t bother with little things like plot or character). It’s fun to see a film throw itself so completely into its era, especially since 1950s America tends to get overlooked in film in favor of World War II on one side and the swinging 60s on the other. So the sets and costumes, both Oscar nominated, were interesting, as were all the little touches from the time period (like the serious amounts of liquor and cigarettes Kate Winslet manages to imbibe while pregnant, or the glimpses into the business world). And I will say it’s often effective in tone; if more people had seen it it could’ve been responsible for a measurable increase in marriage postponements. For a film with so many missteps it was impressively brutally bleak and mostly earned it.

I also really dug the ending. I wasn’t always fond of where the film leads but for where it does lead the resolution works very well. But then the very final scene killed my good will. If your film has to make an over-the-top, meaning-telegraphing final pronouncement, then make it ridiculously over the top like the absurd rat at the end of The Departed, not stupid and smug like In the Valley of Elah.

Maybe the American dream with its illusory suburban picket fence is just a formidable challenge to take head-on. One of my favorite suburbia movies of recent years isn’t really about the suburbs at all: Brick, a modern noir populated with detached youth and set among the sidewalk-free roads and empty big box store parking lots of the suburbs. Maybe suburban angst works best as a supporting character.

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