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Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpra9OEw6nQ

It might just be the recession talking, but as I was watching Revolutionary Road, the new Sam Mendes adaptation of the Richard Yates novel, I thought that the two main characters (at least on the surface) don’t have it so bad. They’re affluent, and have a family. A major conflict occurs when Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets a promotion. Imagine how the story would change had it been set during a recession, and he was instead laid off. No matter – it’s to the credit of the entire production that the movie works so well. It feels unflinchingly honest, and is at times brutal to watch.

Frank and April (Kate Winslet) are unhappy. They first met at a party, and he charmed her with stories of Paris. Now they bitterly fight, refusing to focus their intensity inward. April thinks she has a solution – she proposes that the family moves to Paris where she can get a typing job, and Frank can take time to reassess his life. The husband is reluctant, but soon likes the idea. Friends and neighbors are skeptical. Only one man, a supposedly insane mathematician (Michael Shannon), sees the merit of going abroad. Life temporarily improves for the Wheelers, but as Ryan Phillippe once eloquently said in The Way of the Gun, “A plan is just a list of things that don’t happen.” April gets pregnant, Frank gets a promotion, and suddenly Paris seems far less realistic. A neighbor watches the kids as April and Frank try to work things out. The fights are more cruel than ever.

The movie has both empathy and scorn for the Wheelers. There’s no denying that they are selfish people. Both are unfaithful. Their kids are ancillary – they are props during photogenic moments, and otherwise ignored. In spite of their flaws, there is empathy because the Wheeler’s unhappiness is real. DiCaprio and Winslet deserve much of the credit. When Winslet observes that she and her husband are “just like everyone else,” it sounds appropriately hollow. When DiCaprio observes the similarity he bears to his father, he sounds appropriately resigned. Their only moments of emotional honesty occur when they fight. The fights demonstrate that these two actors still share the chemistry from their Titanic days. Using words as weapons, they say unbelievably hateful things. Of course they don’t mean what they say, but the emotion which provoke such confessions are quietly terrifying. Mendes is a thoughtful director, and here he shows the same attention to detail that he brought to his earlier pictures. Special recognition should go to Michael Shannon, who shows us that in the 1950s, someone was certifiable if they consistently said what they thought.

Some think of Revolutionary Road as a criticism of marriage and suburbia, but I think that’s a mistake. The movie is too smart and complex for such simple conclusions. I haven’t read the novel, but Frank and April have serious issues. April is co-dependent as hell, and projects onto her husband. Frank doesn’t have the same mental instability, yet is complicit in her delusions. When he is not listening to April’s hyperbolic adoration, Franks cuts her down in the nicest way possible. It is clear that he wants to dominate her. Neighbors find some measure of happiness in the same place that suffocates these two. The Wheelers are certainly trapped, but their minds are the prison.

Here are other movies that feature suburban settings and brutal criticism of its characters:

Heathers. High school movies are rarely allowed to be this funny or dark. Veronica (Winona Ryder) runs with the popular girls in her high school, who are all inexplicably named Heather. Soon she meets the new kid JD (Christian Slater), and finds his rebellious attitude irresistible. She confides to JD that she thinks the popular kids would be better off dead, so JD takes it upon himself to kill one Heather, and make it look like a suicide. Of course, this makes the dead Heather (and suicide) more popular than ever. The movie works because of its quotable dialog, and because no character seems to be in on the joke. I would put Heathers up there with Dr. Stangelove and Being There as one of our best satires. There are perfect moments, as when a mourning father loudly announces, “I love my dead gay son!” And like other great high school movies, the movie develops its own unique slang. As a movie reviewer, I do my best to refrain from saying, “Wait, you mean you’ve never seen it?” Heathers is a notable exception.

About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson has become everyone’s lovable lech, and it’s jarring to see him play a character so unlike his persona. Here he is Warren Schmidt, a supremely uninteresting man who leads a life of dull comfort. After retirement and the sudden death of his wife, Warren is at a loss for what to do. He finds some purpose when his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), gets engaged to a schmuck. Hopping in his RV, Warren goes to the house of his propective in-laws, and futilely tries to stop the wedding. As I said last week, director Alexander Payne is at his best when he is merciless, and he certainly achieves that here.  Jack Nicholson does a great job, portraying a man who is completely devoid of imagination. The other characters are also subject to Payne’s satire – the daughter’s fiance is, indeed, a loser. It’s not the most heartwarming movie, but About Schmidt serves as a dire warning to simply not pass through life. And of course every review of this movie should mention that, yes, a middle-aged Kathy Bates has a nude scene with Nicholson, and you do in fact see her sagging breasts (SFW). Unfortunately for me, that image is burned into my memory.

Little Children. Two years ago, Winslet starred in another adaptation of a suburban ennui novel. Adapating  from Tom Perrotta, director Todd Field skewers characters who are not far off from Frank and April. There are two major differences between this movie and Revolutionary Road. The first is that as a modern adaptation, one character is a registered sex offender. Jackie Earle Hayley plays the sad sex offender who cannot stop his depraved compulsions. The second difference is that Little Children features a narrator – he has one of those voices you routinely hear on National Geographic, and his wry observations are sometimes very funny. Field approaches this material in a manner similar to Mendes, but his story has a marginally more hopeful ending. Between this and Revolutionary Road, I must confess that I prefer Little Children. It’s more entertaining, and the sex offender plotline fascinated me. Hayley gives a great, understated performance, and I can’t wait to see him as Rorschach in the upcoming Watchmen movie. Have any of you read the Perrotta or Yates novel? What did you think?

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when go guerilla in Eastern Europe.

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