There are few better portraits of marriage gone wrong than the one depicted in Richard Yates's 1961 novel "Revolutionary Road." With surgical precision, Yates brings us deep inside the trapped lives of Frank and April Wheeler, a 1950s couple whose youthful dreams have been sacrificed on the altar of suburban comfort, conformity and compromise. Frank, bored to death by his job working for the Knox business-machines company, shores up his ego by seducing a worshipful secretary. April, who once harbored dreams of being an actress, is now the mother of two children she never really wanted. They drink too much, complain about their boring neighbors and lash out at each other in savage verbal combat, each finding the other a cruel comedown from the person they thought they once loved.
The movie version, adapted with scrupulous fidelity by Justin Haythe, is directed by Sam Mendes, who dissected suburbia once before in his Oscar-winning "American Beauty." The unfortunate Wheelers are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet: anyone foolish enough to expect "Titanic" redux is in for a rude awakening. What you will see are two very fine actors willing and able to bare their souls. It's almost a shock to see DiCaprio this exposed: we're used to him hiding behind an accent or a scruffy beard. Here, his boyish good looks beginning to thicken, he shows us a man who's gotten by on charm and a fantasy that he was destined for higher things. When April, desperate to save their marriage, proposes that they chuck everything and move to Paris, where she'll work and he'll be free to find his true calling, Frank convinces himself he's excited by the plan. But DiCaprio lets us see the fear that haunts Frank: that he has no calling, that he's really no more special than the bland suburbanites he ridicules over cocktails. April is the more courageous one, and the more damaged, and Winslet is scarily good as this tough, angry housewife. Frank doesn't understand her savage mood swings—is she, in today's terminology, bipolar?—but Winslet makes every jagged emotional swerve ring true.
There's much to admire about "Revolutionary Road," but could any movie take us as far inside these characters as Yates's prose did? Shorn of their backgrounds and their inner monologues, all the characters become more generic. The most sizzling scenes occur when Michael Shannon appears. He plays the mentally deranged son of the Wheeler's busybody real-estate agent (Kathy Bates), a guy who's had 27 electroshock treatments but who, in his brief visits to the couple's home, cuts through the decorum with his rude, truth-telling insights.
"Revolutionary Road" is lushly, impeccably mounted—perhaps too much so. Mendes, a suberb stage director, has an innately theatrical style: everything pops off the screen a little bigger and bolder than life, but the effect, rather than intensifying the emotions, calls attention to itself. Instead of losing myself in the story, I often felt on the outside looking in, appreciating the craftsmanship, but one step removed from the agony on display. "Revolutionary Road" is impressive, but it feels like a classic encased in amber.