Do Sam Mendes’s Films Attack the State of American Marriage?

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski play a happily unmarried couple in Away We Go
Photo: Focus Features

I was happy to see my article ranking director Sam Mendes’s films getting more reads than I thought it would. I wasn’t sure how many people would get excited over a director more known for award contending films than big time blockbusters, but a good conversation topic was born out of the comment section worth taking a look at as one of our regular readers, “Chris C,” takes a look at three of Mendes’s films from a perspective I never quite thought of.

When originally adding his own personal ranking of Mendes’s films Chris wrote, “I actually found Away We Go to be an insult disguised as an endearing comedy… but I could be off the mark.” An insult? Really? I was intrigued and wanted to know more and thankfully Chris obliged with an explanation that caught me a bit by surprise:

I think that, like in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Mendes is attacking the state of American marriage. When you look at all of the couples that Krasinki and Rudolph visit, the marriage is always screwed up in one way or another. The brother, Allison Janney’s family, the seemingly perfect Montreal family, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s family — all married couples, all screwed up in one way or another. And the two leads always leave the married couple with a sour taste, or, a segment never ends with a positive view on marriage. In the end, the unmarried, sort of renegade couple, our two leads, always come out on top — and they always will, as shown by the ending. By remaining unmarried, they can seemingly conquer anything.

It’s not insulting in the typical sense of the word, but I keep reading about how the film is affirming and endearing. I actually found it quite dark, and another way for Mendes to flip off the typical American lifestyle. In a way, I felt cheated by the film, because I would rather have a director tell me his point straight up. And I don’t mean spell it out — I just think that (what I feel) is the point should not be buried under a pretty funny, sweet comedy (seemingly) about accepting the perils of parenthood.

Now, I could be reading way too far into the film. But for my money, the film subtly, slyly manipulates its audience…

For the record, I really enjoyed the performances and thought the script had some very funny moments.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a great evaluation and while I totally agree with Chris on the fact Away We Go is much darker than folks are making it out to be (read my review here), and I always thought American Beauty and Revolutionary Road took their own little jabs at marriage, I never looked at Away We Go in that way. While I was perfectly aware of the supporting characters, I wasn’t evaluating their affect in relation to Mendes’s prior films, I merely evaluated their affect on the couple in question and the storyline at hand. However, Chris’s argument has validity as all of the married couples Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) visit are having troubles of some sort and the one thing Burt and Verona are doing different from all of them is not getting married. Of course, this is at the insistence of Verona as Burt has proposed several times, but nonetheless it’s true.

So, it begs the question — Does Mendes actually have an agenda?

Photo: Focus Features

I looked around the Internet for interviews with Mendes related to Away We Go and did happen upon some quotes that hardly help the discussion, but I’ll introduce them anyway. The first comes from Jim Gilchrist’s interview at The Scotsman in which Mendes says, “I’m drawn to dark material, but I’m not a pessimistic person. Even though I’m very proud of Revolutionary Road, I’m not a Yatesian by nature [referring to the author of the original book]. I’m not someone who believes men and women are destined to forever be apart and everything will eventually dissolve.” That’s about as deep as I could find Mendes going when it came to relationships, which means we will primarily have to look at this based on outsider perception alone.

The same interview at the Scotsman references A.O. Scott’s review of Away We Go at “The New York Times” saying:

To observe that [Burt and Verona] inhabit no recognizable American social reality is only to say that this is a film by Sam Mendes, a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean. The vague, secondhand ideas about the blight of the suburbs that sloshed around American Beauty and Revolutionary Road are now complemented by an equally incoherent set of notions about the open road, the pioneer spirit, the idealism of youth.

Pretty harsh, but I think it’s funny Scott took such issue with the fact it was a youthful road movie in a pursuit for happiness. While it’s a bit off topic, when Scott finishes saying, “Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don’t be silly. But don’t be fooled. This movie does not like you,” we actually get closer to the point, but we also open up a side of Scott that one day may need to be looked at a little closer.

Contrary to Scott’s belief, an interviewer at Dark Horizons tells Mendes he’s “a Brit who seems to have his pulse on the American psyche” to which Mendes doesn’t necessarily grasp onto, but he does say, “You know, I really don’t know. I mean, I’m very drawn to America. I mean, for a start, I’ve lived here for five years now. So, you know, I live in New York and so part of it is circumstantial. But it’s easier for me to make movies about America, because I live in America.”

Considering American Beauty was made 10 years ago, living in America for five years doesn’t amount to a whole lot. I also wasn’t able to find any hard-and-fast quotes asking Mendes about his opinions of American marriages, which, as I said, left me searching down other avenues.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road
Photo: Paramount Vantage

Lee Siegel at the Wall Street Journal wonders “Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs?” in relation to Mendes’s Revolutionary Road, but that isn’t necessarily on the nose and there are no quotes from the director. However, Siegel does draw the comparison between American Beauty and Revolutionary Road saying the latter is just “a reiteration — take a sprinkler, add a dollop of anomie, and presto! you’re an authentic American filmmaker.”

I thought a search for something like “Sam Mendes Hates America” would get me someone all worked up over his films, but all I got was a bunch of comment threads with statements like, “I can’t think of anyone who hates hard working, middle class, tradition loving Americans more than Sam Mendes” and “You respect American Beauty? I walked out of the cinema when the ham-fisted propagandist wasn’t satisfied with simply making the neighbourhood traditionalist (Liberals read: “homo-hater”) unlikable, it had to sledge-hammer the point home by having him collect authentic Nazi memorabilia.” Whew, crack open that hornets nest and we’ll have a riot on our hands.

There’s no doubt Mendes’s films have stirred up audiences, but at what point do we take a closer look at screenwriters Alan Ball (American Beauty), Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) and Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida (Away We Go)? Of the bunch only Haythe wasn’t born in the United States… So where does that leave us?

Does Sam Mendes have a problem with American marriages? I have no idea, but if he did I can’t say he has a losing argument. Every search I did for divorce rates in America show me 50% or more of all marriages end in divorce. Compare that to 11.9 divorces for every 1,000 in England and where do you go from there?

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