Another few stragglers from the year gone by....
Revolutionary Road comes confusingly too soon after Reservation Road, a mere year apart, although in fairness the novels on which they were based (by Richard Yates and John Burnham Schwartz respectively) were written in reverse order, a vast thirty-seven years apart. The new movie returns director Sam Mendes to the suburban stamping ground of his filmmaking debut, American Beauty, but at the very opening of that territory in the 1950s, at the inception, that is to say, of all the clichés of cookie-cutter conformity, Little Boxes, the Lonely Crowd, lives of quiet desperation, and so forth. The central couple, residing with strident irony at the titular address in Connecticut, the dead end of the American Dream, are the Wheelers, Frank and April, he a member of the Gray Flannel Suit brigade (in stock shots of the uniformed troops on the morning commute to Manhattan), who despises his position in a cramped cubicle at Knox Business Machines, and she a foiled actress condemned to stay at home with the two kiddies (eerily out of sight and mind for most of the movie). It is she who hatches the escape plan of uprooting the family to Paris — “People are alive there, not like here” — and of allowing her husband time to figure out what he wants to do with his life while she for a change earns the paychecks. And it is she, too, who remains unwavering in her commitment to the plan, even after an accidental pregnancy; and it is he, with a promotion dangled in front of him and a chance to get in on the ground floor of computers, who starts to vacillate.
The casting tends to tilt the playing field further. It must have seemed a bright idea to reunite the lovebirds of Titanic, as if to hint at the illusion-shattering grimness of the married life ahead of them had the iceberg not got in the way. But the birds have matured at different rates in the intervening eleven years. Whether in rage or frustration, cajolement or surrender, Kate Winslet (Mrs. Mendes off screen) appears much too strong for Leonardo DiCaprio, whose perennial boyishness (only underscored by the dress-up suit and hat) clings to him, dogs him, drags him down, even in, or perhaps especially in, his face-caving moments of total emotional nakedness: “You’re not worth the powder it would take to blow you up!” (Now, now, sonny.) You could wonder, to divide the faultfinding fairly, whether she’s not too strong for her own role. The movie, taking its lead from the novel and then going beyond the novel in search of a present-day perspective, is trying to do something a bit different, and a bit difficult, in suggesting that the would-be free Wheelers are not as superior to, or separate from, their neighbors and surroundings as they would like to imagine, and in nudging the spectators, at the same time, to recognize that they themselves are not as superior as they might suppose to the central couple, the Fifties, their neighbors today. The codified view of postwar suburbia has over the years undergone too much expansion and elaboration for the movie to escape a sense of cliché and sense of hyperbole. But the cliché and hyperbole are done to a turn. And the period and its archaisms (“I must scoot. Toodle-oo”), its formalities and manners (no one but a certified madman, an institutionalized mathematician on a day pass, dares speak the truth in mixed company), combine to produce a stylization that brings out the satire in the piece. Revolutionary Road beats American Beauty, not terribly hard to do, for both seriousness and funniness.
Edward Zwick’s Defiance is a workmanlike account of the untold (or anyhow unfilmed) true story of a 20th-century Moses and his two brothers, who sheltered hundreds of Jews from the Nazis in the forests of Belorussia, such dark days that color itself evidently went into hiding, leaving behind only a greeny or occasionally orangey residue. Daniel Craig, a blond blue-eyed Jew like Paul Newman in Exodus (“He is a Jew?” wonders aloud a plain-spoken child), delivers heroic declarations on the order of “Our revenge is to live” and “We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals.” Natural lovelies emerge undimmed from the rustic privations to pair up with the heroes. A schoolteacher and an intellectual carry on a running sideshow of comical bickering. And Liev Schreiber, the hottest-headed of the three brothers, not content just to dodge the Nazis but itching to engage them, defects to the Red Army. The big hooray moment when he returns to the fold in the nick of time can be seen coming from so far off that we’re surprised only that it didn’t arrive sooner. Somehow, even with violin solos by Joshua Bell to put you in mind of Schindler’s List, the saga doesn’t quite sweep you up and away. But it at least stirs interest in the real story.
In Last Chance Harvey, Dustin Hoffman has a role he can really sink his teeth into, or sharpen them on: a jazz pianist manqué who makes do composing musical scores for TV commercials. (Funny-sad sight of him staring intently at the little screen to appraise his latest opus for OxiClean.) With his job on the line, he flies off to London for the weekend wedding of his only daughter, has his rightful role in the ceremony usurped by the bride’s debonair stepfather, misses his return flight home, gets fired long-distance, and stays on to unload his troubles at some length to a customer-relations employee at Heathrow: Emma Thompson, towering over the leading man by four inches, and showering him with her special brand of lifelike artificiality. The social mortifications of the early stages are amusingly observed (the solitary white jacket in a crowd of black, an unremovable security device still affixed to the cuff, etc.), but the extended dialogue — a Before Sunrise, if you like, for the sunset years — that deepens overnight into a Serious Relationship sounds distinctly unorganic, forced forward solely by the determination of British writer-director Joel Hopkins to engineer a never-too-late romance for a couple of underemployed old pros. It’s all quite sweet, a little too-too.