The preview for Revolutionary Road, which opens Dec. 26, is one of those rare and wondrous pieces of promotion that tells you everything you need to know about a movie without really telling you anything at all. There’s beautiful Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, gleaming in their mid-’50s-era costumes, smoking, sighing, drinking, dancing, screaming, kissing … and then drinking, smoking, screaming and sighing some more. Nina Simone sings “Wild is the Wind” (“love me, love me, love me … say you do”) as images of manicured suburban lawns and gray-flannel-suited men, marching like soldiers through Grand Central Station, flash by. Kate and Leo, reunited onscreen for the first time since 1997’s Titanic, might not have giant ships or icebergs to contend with in Revolutionary Road, but one thing is clear from the start: They’re very much in danger of sinking.
Like the 1961 Richard Yates novel it is faithfully adapted from, the film, directed by Sam Mendes, might make you cry. It could very well make you mad. But perhaps most unsettling of all—particularly in this, our new Age of Anxiety, with layoffs and money troubles and the ever-increasing pressure, especially in New York City, to have everything, in spite of it all—it might force you to examine your own life. Revolutionary Road is, in part, a portrait of a marriage. But it is also a dissection of personal failure, of what happens when we disappoint ourselves, when we end up on the road we never meant to travel. As you might imagine, the view from that road, when one really stops to look, is very bleak indeed.
Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple who seems to have it all: genetically blessed looks, charm, adorable children, a sweet, green-lawned house within commuting distance from the city. They’re the shining stars of their block, the enchanting and interesting couple everyone wants to have a drink (or four) with. Unlike the sad sacks in his office, Frank is cut out for bigger and better things, and April is the woman meant to be married to someone like Frank—she’s the unintentional housewife who is different, more intelligent and introspective than the other women planting greenery along their identical drives. Or so the Wheelers liked to think. Thanks to events both in and out of their control, they must confront the people they have actually become out in suburbia, and the cold reality that they will never lead the lives they intended to. And then they begin to disintegrate. Spectacularly.
“I think it’s perfectly possible for human beings to spend a large part of their life convincing themselves that they’re happy,” Ms. Winslet said recently, speculating on why it is that Revolutionary Road will resonate with people so deeply. She was perched on a sofa in the Waldorf Astoria, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and ashing elegantly into a bottle of water. “Ultimately, when reality kicks in and you dare to allow yourself to think that you might actually be living a life that you haven’t planned, or living a life that you don’t want to be living and feel trapped in, then that’s when your problems begin. I think for human beings to feel trapped and isolated and lonely in a life that they thought they were happy in … Well, it’s just a terrible, terrible place to be. I think everyone has been in that place—even if they tell you they haven’t, I think they have. I think there are more people who have been in that place than people who have been blissfully happy forever.”
RICHARD YATES’ NOVEL has been, as Richard Ford once wrote, “a secret handshake” among the cultish fans who have fought for Revolutionary Road and Yates (who died in sad circumstances before his work rose to its current acclaim) to take their rightful place beside Cheever, Carver, Updike and Fitzgerald. They praise the book for its deceptively simple and brilliant prose, dark (dark) humor and brutal honesty. Author and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo was in a Ph.D. program, at what he called the “tipping point” of deciding to be a writer, the first time he read Revolutionary Road. “Most of my fellow graduate school students were excited by the highly experimental, intellectual meta-fiction folks,” he said. “I thought those things were interesting, but I was looking for something else entirely. It was Richard Yates writing about April Wheeler and Frank Wheeler … Those were closer to the people I knew, closer to my experience in life. I knew it was possible for Mark Twain to write about Huckleberry Finn, but I wasn’t sure if in the literary climate it would be possible for me to write about the people I wanted to write about. Richard Yates and Revolutionary Road convinced me that yes, you can write about them and it would be literature if it was good enough.”
Mr. Russo isn’t alone: Yates is often called “a writer’s writer,” and the list of others who have pledged admiration for him include Richard Price, Joan Didion, Tennessee Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron and Alice Munro. “I feel like it’s a secret society,” said author Elizabeth Strout. “I think for me and for a lot of others, it’s that Yates dares to go there. He takes it all the way. I think it’s brave.”