Directed by Sam Mendes
As the movie opens, we witness Frank and April meeting for the first time at a party. Years later, April’s performance at a local community theater bombs so badly that she wants to give up her dreams to act. Frank tries to be supportive, but as they drive home, they get into a huge roadside fight, which is only the opening act of where things will go later. Both of them are unhappy with their lives as Frank commutes into the city to work at a dead-end job where he casually seduces the new secretaries. April is also unhappy with suburbia, so they suddenly decide that moving to Paris will solve all their problems, allowing them to start a new life. They begin acting on this dream, but things start looking better for Frank at his job and April unexpectedly gets pregnant, and suddenly their master plan doesn’t look feasible any more.
The movie relies heavily on the emotionality involved in Frank and April’s situation, but after that first fight, no one watching can possibly believe that them moving to Paris will solve anything and that things are just going to get worse and worse, which is exactly what happens over the course of the next 90 minutes.
Maybe it would have worked if there was a reason why anyone might be able to sympathize or empathize with Frank or April. They’re both fairly rotten: Frank is insensitive and uncaring while April is cold and selfish. In terms of the acting, Winslet certainly comes off the better of the two with another strong and confident performance, but it’s hard to take the baby-faced DiCaprio very seriously in the role of a father of two, let alone a sleazeball who treats April and other women so poorly. Mendes uses this environment to explore themes of how women were treated in the ’50ssimilar in that respect to Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling”–but in this context, it comes across as misogynistic, especially lines like April telling Frank, “you’re the most beautiful thing in the world, you’re a man.” Really?
The Wheelers’ neighbors Shep and Milly Campbell have their own problems, trying to live their own suburban dream through the ideal created by the Wheelers. Shep’s secret crush on April makes things difficult in their own marriage and the announcement their favorite couple is leaving the neighborhood crushes both their spirits but for different reasons. (Kathryn Hahn’s “gee-willikers” approach to Milly sometimes makes it hard to take this subplot very seriously.) Then there’s Kathy Bates as Mrs. Givings, the neighborhood realtor and snoop who hopes that introducing her institutionalized son John (Michael Shannon) to the Wheelers might set him on the straight and narrow, but that doesn’t go as planned. For the most part, all of the actors deliver the ’50s dialogue in such a deliberate stylized way that their characters often feel false. The amount of overwrought dramatic acting makes the whole movie feel as of they’re putting on a play, the affected performances killing much of the credibility during the dialogue scenes.
Shannon effortlessly steals the movie as the outspoken loon who addresses the Wheelers’ problems head-on rather than beating around the bush like everyone else, and it’s no surprise, he’s the only one absolutely thrilled by the prospects of them moving to Paris. Having endured all the politeness hiding the bickering behind closed doors, you can almost appreciate how his character shakes things up. He’s either clearly insane or just the most sane of them all, and you almost have to root for him since he’s the only one stating the obvious: this marriage doesn’t work and these two people should not try to stay together.
While Mendes’ movie clearly suffers from some of the same problems as Eastwood’s, it’s visually gorgeous in the way Mendes uses the era to create the same type of imagery he used so effectively in “American Beauty,” particularly the Manhattan scenes. It’s hard to justify such beautify with such a dark and ugly film, and Thomas Newman’s score of essentially playing the same musical motif over and over again quickly gets tiring.
In the movie’s most intense scene, the Wheelers are midst-fight when the Givings show up and John’s taunts just make things worse. That’s where things really explode, but it’s hard to take much of their ensuing violence and harsh words seriously since it seems like a scene right out of “The War of the Roses.” It’s even more jarring when the next day everything is back to normal. After such a strong climax, the film eventually arrives at a poignant ending, but at that point, it’s too late and it’s hard for the movie to recover after being forced to endure such mental anguish.
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