Can Love Survive?

It was similarly brave for Mr. Mendes (who’s married to Ms. Winslet) to make this film, given the attachment that

It was similarly brave for Mr. Mendes (who’s married to Ms. Winslet) to make this film, given the attachment that fans of the book have felt to the Wheelers. Yates’ portrait of their marriage is downright brutal—you may not realize how much yelling goes on in Revolutionary Road until you actually see the film—but there’s some universal truth to the pull of love and hate between Frank and April, and also within them as individuals, that makes their story feel, for lack of a better word, real. The tension is between conforming to societal values—kids, nice house, good job, etc.—and following dreams; between being superficially happy and truly happy.

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“You know the thing most people said to me, if they knew the book and knew I was making the movie, was, ‘Don’t fuck it up,’” said Sam Mendes. “And now the highest form of praise I can get is, ‘You didn’t fuck it up!’” He didn’t; Revolutionary Road nails the elemental spirit and tone of the novel, “an ache”—as Mr. Mendes described it. “They’re all sort of longing for something, a yearning, they just don’t know what it is,” he said. 

The screenplay by Justin Haythe (a novelist in his own right) adheres pretty closely to the source material (“It’s like a good hair cut,” Mr. Haythe said. “You don’t want people to notice the changes”), and the performances by Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Winslet are astonishing and accordingly devastating. It’s a hard two hours, and the movie is as emotionally exhausting as the book. For in a Yatesian world, no one is safe. People are weak and trying to pretend—mainly for their own sakes—that they’re not. Photographs don’t capture the person you believe you are. Love isn’t real, but based on shared, fragile illusions. Powder and lipstick and the whiff of martinis and cigarettes cover up sour smells and sweaty desperation. As 2008 draws to a close and we New Yorkers assess the year that was, even if we can put check marks next to the major stuff (spouse, job, kids, a prewar apartment in a good ZIP code, the right preschool, a country house, Tibetan nanny, etc.), we may never escape, completely, the fundamental dread of adulthood. Mainly, what if it isn’t enough?

I’m a big believer that life is diamond-shaped,” said Mr. Mendes. “Horizons expand and they contract. I think we’ve all at one time or another realized without really knowing it that they’re contracting … and how did that happen? You can’t choose who you marry because you’re married. You can’t choose whether to have kids or not because you have kids. You can’t choose where you live, because you’ve already chosen where you live, and these choices have been made, you know? You wake up and you wonder how I did I get here? It’s a 20th-century malaise expressed with incredible clarity with this book. I think people can relate to it on the level of that moment when, whoever you are, you look at your partner and think, who are you? Who is this stranger who is living in my house? I think that absolute shock of sharing your life with someone who is on some level a complete mystery to you whoever you are … I think it’s universal.”

Last weekend, in a tastefully decorated garden apartment in Brooklyn Heights, a group of seven attractive and well-educated women met for their monthly book club to discuss Revolutionary Road. Their ages ranged from late 20s to mid-30s, a little more than half were married, and almost all of them were lawyers. The hostess had gotten into the ’50s swing of the book and served accordingly: crust-less egg-and-cucumber sandwiches, salmon and crème fraiche bites, gherkins and a glass dish of pickles and, of course, plenty of wine. A discussion of the recession and fear of losing jobs—much like the one taking place at any point anywhere in the city—dominated the first half-hour. Then they delved into Revolutionary Road. Most seemed to like it. A couple said they couldn’t read it without seeing Ms. Winslet and Mr. DiCaprio in their heads. One woman finally leaned forward and said, “Is it O.K. that I didn’t like it? Is that bad?” No, no, no, she was quickly assured. “I’m just so over the whole suburban-bashing thing,” she said. “I didn’t feel sorry for them. What’s the fucking point? Buy a train ticket and go into the city if you’re sick of being stuck at home. Stop complaining.”

“I don’t know,” said another, a mother of two children living in Scarsdale. “I kind of felt like this is so my life.” All of the married women seemed to relate to the rawness of Frank and April Wheeler’s fights. “I’ve never fought like that,” one (lucky) woman said. “I have,” four voices replied in unison. “I don’t know,” the hostess said. “It comes down to accepting what your life is. It’s about being an adult. Life is not what you thought it would be at 19. Suck it up,” she said.

“But isn’t that depressing?” asked the woman beside her.

 

“READERS OF LITERARY fiction are likely people who identify very strongly and uncomfortably with the typical Yatesian protagonist, who tends to be a well-educated, middle-income, aspiring-intellectual type, who is of course deceiving himself and is really far more mediocre than she or he would like to think,” said Blake Bailey, author of the Yates biography A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates and the forthcoming Cheever: A Life, with considerable frankness. “That is a horrible realization, to identify with such people and their inevitable downfall.”

Can Love Survive?