Sunday, February 07, 2010

Two Roads Diverged

This weekend, I watched a double feature of two films that were based on novels with a similar title: Reservation Road and Revolutionary Road. One thing I enjoy doing is watching similar films in a double or triple feature. For instance, in the past, I had watched a double feature of The Prestige and The Illusionist, which were films about magicians. The problem with doing this is that I sometimes confuse the two, as I can't remember which of those I liked better than the other.

With these two "Road" movies, though, they are different enough that I will remember which movie was about which story. Both of them did not do well in theaters. Reservation Road came out in 2007 and Revolutionary Road was released during the 2008 Oscar contention season. Last year, I had read the Richard Yates novel with the intention that I would see it in theaters. This was a novel I had been wanting to read for several years, after being impressed with the film Far From Heaven in 2002. The brilliance of Far From Heaven was that the director had made a film that had the look and feel of a movie from the 1950s, while covering topics that were taboo back then. The film really showed the blandness of suburbia and left me wanting to see or read more about the topic, thus I learned about a classic novel that is considered to be the first one of its kind: Revolutionary Road. I never bought it to read until the movie came out, because I generally want to read the novel first before I see the movie. However, after I finished reading the novel, I was so unimpressed with it that I decided to wait until the film came out on DVD. What surprised me most was that I did not like either of the main characters. Its difficult to get into a story when you dislike the characters.

But, I'll get to that one later. First, I watched Reservation Road, which is based on a novel by John Burnham Schwartz. I have not read his novel, but I am familiar with this writer because when I was in the tenth or eleventh grade, I remember reading an article about him. If I remember correctly, he had his first novel published when he was a teenager or a college student, which was called Bicycle Days. I was inspired by the article because I have long harboured a dream to be a published novelist (a dream that never dies) so I saved the article for years as a source of inspiration that I could achieve that someday as well.

Reservation Road is about the lives of two men (and their families) in the aftermath of a tragedy that connects them. Joaquin Phoenix plays Ethan with Jennifer Connelly as his wife Grace. At a gas station stop, they watch in horror as their ten year old son is killed in a hit-and-run accident. The driver of the SUV is Mark Ruffalo, who had swerved too far to avoid a head-on collision, and is late returning his son back to his ex-wife after a Boston Red Sox game. This incident sets up the drama and throughout the film, we see the two men interract in convenient coincidences, with the hit-and-run driver aware of who Ethan is, but Ethan having no idea that the other man was the driver.

The brilliance of the film is that audiences see the struggles both men go through in dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy. Ethan is frustrated by police procedure and a slow investigation, the driver wants to do the right thing, but knows that he'll most likely go to prison at a time when he's just beginning to reconnect with his son. The intensity continues to grow until the final resolution, which was not how I imagined it would go. I'm not sure that I liked the outcome, but it was a pretty good film that makes you think about the complexity of a situation like that. I guess the moral lesson is, killing someone in an accident is bad enough, but running from the scene is far worse. There's a chance one could get away and never be caught, but the incident will always weigh on a person's conscience and it creates bad karma in that the victim's family will wonder why and second guess with what ifs.

Revolutionary Road is pretty loyal to the novel. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler and Kate Winslet stars as his wife April Wheeler. If I remember correctly, the novel was set or published in 1961, so this story inhabits the same world as Mad Men. However, while there are similarities (like Don Draper, Frank Wheeler works at a company in Manhattan and lives in a nice two-story suburban house in Connecticut, which is also where Reservation Road was set), the world inhabited by the Wheelers is dull compared to Draper's world. There's a beautiful scene in Revolutionary Road that shows the conformity of the period: men in gray suits and fedoras getting off the train at Penn Station and heading out into the streets of Manhattan to their various office buildings. Like Draper, Wheeler has an affair with a secretary at work during a lunch break. April is a housewife, bored in suburbia, just like Betty Draper.

The reason both characters are so unlikable is because they had made the choice to conform to the dreams of everyone else: a career in the city and a home in suburbia, a boy and a girl, and all the trappings of a life lived like everyone else on the block. Despite their conformist choices, both of them think they are better than everyone else and deserve a far better life. In the novel, there is greater detail about the arrogant attitudes of this couple, as they have dinner parties with their "best friends" but think bad thoughts about their friends being dull. If they think their friends are so dull, why do they spend so much time with them? Maybe that's the point of the novel...the Wheelers are just like everyone else, making the same choices, but they view themselves as being above that and thus better than everyone else.

April proposes to Frank that he should quit his job, sell their home and car, and move the family to Paris so he can figure out what he wants to do with his life. He's skeptical at first, but soon warms to the idea and then they start telling everyone their plans. Everyone finds this plan to be strange, as who does that sort of thing anyway? In the conformist world of the 1950s and early 1060s, no one does things like that. The mark of success is a career with a wife and kids in a suburban home. America was a consumer paradise and one did not chuck it all to live in Paris.

The marriage unravels, due in part to the honesty of a man from an insane asylum who is invited over to the Wheelers for dinner with his parents, who are neighbours. He makes honest comments about his observations that hit too close to home for the Wheelers and offends his parents, who understand the importance of decorum and not speaking so candidly about other people's lives.

The film, overall, is rather dull. I don't know if this is because I did not like the novel or because the film Far From Heaven and the TV show Mad Men portrayed the same themes in a more compelling way. I also thought Leonardo DiCaprio was wrong for the role. He just doesn't look the part. He would have been better suited to play the guy from the insane asylum. My overall impression of the story is that it serves as a warning about abandoning your dreams to live the conformist life society expects you to live only nags at your soul until you feel the weight of despair.

According to the documentary feature on the DVD, the director believes that "you only have one shot in life to live your dream and once you make the choice, its too late to change your destiny." I don't know if he actually believes that or if he's just presenting the author's view. I personally don't believe that, as many people have made transitions from dead end careers into a more meaningful life. I still hold out hope that I will be able to find my career that I'm passionate about. That's the great thing about our society. We're much more diversified and those who still long for the conformist culture of the 1950s are pining for something that no longer exists. Yes, teabaggers...I'm talking about you! Welcome to the 21st Century. The Conformist 50s-era has no place in our society except in a museum.

Of the two "Road" movies, make a reservation for the Joaquin Phoenix one and skip the DiCaprio one. There's nothing revolutionary about a pretentious snob who chose to live like everyone else and finds that he regrets his choice. That's the price of conformity, which still afflicts corporate culture today.

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