Review: Revolutionary Road


In Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty, an excellent Richard Yates biography, Bailey depicts Yates’s efforts to adapt William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness for director John Frankenheimer. The film, as we all know, was never made. And although Yates took this lucrative gig to whirl away with the money, this didn’t stop the troubled and cash-strapped literary master from writing to the requirements of the cinematic medium. Yates included careful music cues (“light, tinny, inexpert” xylophone music to be played during a moment of rage), specific camera angles, and even facial expressions, but, above all, he remained faithful to Styron’s text, condensing and tweaking the narrative without sacrificing its visceral dynamic. To tamper with Styron too much or to water it down would involve a conventional and pointless facsimile, a flaccid adaptation dishonest to Styron and the possibilities of cinema itself.

Bailey concludes that Yates’s screenplay “may have amounted to a great movie adapted from a great novel.” And he quotes Frankenheimer forty years after Yates’s labor: “God, it’s good. I’d still like to make that movie.”

It’s doubtful that the team behind Revolutionary Road had any solicitude like this in mind. Justin Haythe’s unpardonably distilled screenplay “adaptation” manages to whittle away all that was interesting within Yates’s book. It is, like the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a dull and literal winnowing of a literary masterpiece. You know you’re in trouble from the get-go when Yates’s opening chapter in a community theater, which masterfully sets up the artifices of the Wheelers, is replaced with aloof flashbacks.

Clumping their heavy galoshes around the stage, blotting at their noses with Kleenex and frowning at the unsteady print of their scripts, they would disarm each other at last with peals of forgiving laughter, and they would agree, over and over, that there was plenty of time to smooth the thing out. But there wasn’t plenty of time, and they all knew it, and a doubling and redoubling of their rehearsal schedule seemed only to make matters worse.

Granted, it takes a screenwriter of exceptional talent to process those precise interior sentences into the visual exigencies of the film form. But Haythe is incapable of introducing anything that might permit us to see the wheels spinning in Frank’s head. Nor is director Sam Mendes up to the task of reinventing the Wheelers by establishing behavior that is as specifically rendered as Yates’s prose.

road3Instead of the backstories associated with this disastrous local theater run, we see Leo and Kate (certainly not anything close to Yates’s Frank and April, and considerably removed from Cameron’s Jack and Rose) looking across at each other at a party. But we have no real sense in the film of why these two would be attracted to each other, and, because of this, there’s no real reason to care. It doesn’t help that the Wheeler household looks more like a Pottery Barn catalog than a middle-class dwelling in 1955. And it doesn’t help that Mendes cannot even depict two pivotal acts of carnality with accuracy. (In the Mendes universe, couples have passionless sex and finish each other off in twenty seconds without even the tiniest whimper of pleasure. This is as preposterous and implausible as Sharon Stone’s over-the-top masturbation scene in Sliver. In a narrative that demands close verisimilitude, this is an inexcusable artistic decision.)

There’s a better effort to account for the Wheelers’s emotional deadness later on in the film, when the Wheelers sit down for breakfast after a fight. Leo and Kate deliver their lines in a husky and stilted manner, and the stale atmosphere in this scene is perhaps the closest this film comes to making something stick on the screen.

Nevertheless, I wondered if director Sam Mendes had really wanted to make this movie. Did he even understand the book? Had he even read it? In book form, Revolutionary Road is, among other things, a harrowing portrayal of potential castrated in the comforting traps of suburbia. And if you’re going to make a movie from this, you need an actor in Frank Wheeler’s role who is not only capable of selling us the masculinity muted beneath the cube worker, but you need someone who can intuitively grasp the emotional complexities carefully embedded inside the novel.

road2Leonardo DiCaprio is not that man. He demonstrates little thespic understanding of what it means to be stifled. He gives us nothing in the way of sorrow, save the cartoonish wails and the exaggerated throwing of physical objects from surfaces. DiCaprio has been relying on this ever since a few people convinced him that he was a serious actor. But he is unable to present us with some of the reasons why Frank would be tempted by an extramarital affair. He can access the territory of knowing he’s not good enough to be someone special. But when we learn how Frank Wheeler’s cavalier act gets him ahead, it is not because of DiCaprio. It is because Haythe and Mendes spoon-feed it to us ad nauseum. A scene at a beach, a scene with his co-workers at a diner, a scene with April. This is an inefficient and an insulting waste of minutes. We need not be told twice, let alone three times, that Frank Wheeler has what it takes to get ahead at Knox Business Machines. It should be self-evident in the way that Frank Wheeler acts on screen. But DiCaprio here cannot merge into the tempo established by his environment.

Some of this may be bad casting and bad direction. But it’s clear watching this film that DiCaprio’s mind, emotions, and personal experience — as portrayed here — remain unsuited to a man in his midthirties who knows nothing more than a shitty job.

As April, Kate Winslet is better. She did, after all, play Sarah Pierce, the bored thirtysomething housewife who feels entitled to something better in Little Children, nailing the opportunity to fuse hauteur with vulnerability. (Perhaps Todd Field should have been the guy to write and direct Revolutionary Road.)

But her husband is not suited to direct her. Instead of crafting a performance out of Winslet, Mendes constantly places Winslet in the center of the frame, as if this visual juxtaposition will somehow atone for the bad material.

road4Instead, Mendes and Haythe, who appear to be a writer-director working team about as competent as Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher, see Yates’s endlessly nuanced novel as an opportunity to remake American Beauty for the 1950s, with a number of sexist nods to Mad Men thrown in for commercial appeal. “I must scoot. Toodle-ooo,” says one bubbly neighbor. And this cornball emphasis suggests that Mendes and Haythe don’t see the 1950s as a time in which real people lived and wrestled with serious decision. It is a decade to be played merely for cheap laughs.

And this contempt for audiences makes Revolutionary Road a movie designed for illiterates who will likely give this dreadful film a pass because they refuse to demand better.

Perhaps Mendes and Haythe’s incompetence can be summed up in the film’s final scene, which takes a good two minutes to execute. But Yates got to the point in two sentences. It’s a pity that this film never dares to trust its audience and speed up its pace through natural beats and a meticulous attention to human behavior. If it had, it might have come close to understanding the welcome, thunderous sea of silence at the heart of Yates’s novel.

AUTHORS: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s the ultimate reality series, the ultimate game show and the ultimate half-hour of intriguing storylines. The Ultimate Author is an awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events. Each week, contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.

Casting Call: June 16, 2007. Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[via gawker.]

Someone invited me to this thing called “Good Reads.”

My profile is here.

I reviewed my own book, EEEEE EEE EEEE.

I reviewed almost every book I like.

They link to places like Amazon to buy books from.

You can go to other places though.

The cash is in your hands.

The choice is yours.

McNally Robinson ships any book anywhere in the world.

I will give you some advice now.

Some practical advice to actualize your liberal politics in concrete reality.

1. To get free books go to your pile of books, in your room, and pick up an Amy Tan book, in your hands, bring it to Barnes and Noble or Border’s, and exchange it for a book by an independent press.

2. If an author you like is reading at Barnes and Noble or Borders and you want to give them your book, that you wrote, go to the bookshelf in the store, take the book, in your hand, write a note in it, then bring it to the author who is reading who you like, and give it to him or her.

Barnes and Nobles in NYC, and probably in other places, don’t have tags in the books, but I think Borders has tags in some books. You can just flip through the book and find it though, and take it out, and put it on somewhere else.

Go to Good Reads and be my friend and read my reviews.

I reviewed Noah Cicero, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, Richard Yates, Lydia Davis, Matthew Rohrer, Jean Rhys, Ann Beattie, Todd Hasak-Lowy, Bobbie Ann Mason, Kobo Abe, Celia Farber, Peter Singer, Mary Robison, and some other people.

The Bat Segundo Show #49


Author: Dave King

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unknown, replaced temporarily by a shady documentary producer fulfilling a contractual obligation.

Subjects Discussed: Modeling, painting, making a transition to writing, ambition, disabilities, self-help, italicized words, iambic pentameter, sincerity in an age of literary realism, Richard Yates, the early ending to The Ha-Ha, getting The Ha-Ha published, Vietnam and war, Tim O’Brien, cities as reference points, conformity vs. uniqueness, sincere language co-opted by Hallmark, Matthew Sharp, the semantics of symbolism, Americans and passports, on being skeptical about self-improvement, A Clockwork Orange, Akiva Goldsman and the Ha-Ha film adaptation.

Another Tragic Biography?

Blake Bailey, the author of the Richard Yates A Tragic Honesty who inspired a drinking game here earlier in the year, has a new John Cheever biography coming out. The Boston Globe caught up with Bailey. Thanks to a $42,000 Guggenheim fellowship, Bailey says he plans to spend the next two years explaining how Cheever arrived at his tombstone. (Bailey has until December 2007 to deliver the manuscript.) Which suggests an equally arduous and equally moribund biography of another great writer. But Bailey says that he plans to approach Cheever’s life as “a redemptive fable.” Bailey has already talked to half of his 150 sources and read all 28 volumes of Cheever’s private journals.

The Blake Bailey Drinking Game

It was Le Haggis that got me reading much of the Richard Yates’ catalog after the books languished in one of my bookpiles for several months. About the least that can be said about Richard Yates is that you should read everything he’s written immediately. Stewart O’Nan’s essay is a good place to start., if you’re unfamiliar with his life and work.

Along the way, I read Blake Bailey’s excellent biography, A Tragic Honesty, which proved far more sad and gripping than I expected it to be. While Bailey is a dutiful biographer, I did notice a few commonalities. Since Bailey’s bio seems to be making the rounds in the litblogosphere, I’ve devised a drinking game for those who haven’t yet read the book — that is, if you’d like to be thoroughly sloshed after just one chapter.

Drink if:

  • Richard Yates drinks.
  • Richard Yates smokes.
  • Richard Yates yells at someone.
  • Richard Yates criticizes a story with ruthless honesty.
  • Richard Yates damns the New Yorker.
  • Richard Yates tries to find work.
  • Richard Yates’ living quarters is described as a sad and impoverished place.
  • Richard Yates hits on a younger woman.
  • Kurt Vonnegut shows up.
  • Andre Dubus shows up.
  • Richard Yates asks for an advance.
  • The influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald is referred to.
  • Richard Yates has difficulty breathing.
  • Dookie Yates shows up.
  • Richard Yates can’t climb stairs or has difficulty walking.
  • When the phrase “to hell with _____” appears.
  • John Irving’s The World According to Garp is trashed.
  • Yates vomits.
  • Yates hacks.
  • Yates spends quality time with one of his daughters.
  • Hollywood is trashed.
  • Yates has a mental breakdown.

Product Placement in Fiction

I’m not completely against describing products and cultural minutiae in fiction, but I have a distinct problem with the way Tricia Sullivan does it in Maul. This fascinating novel, an interesting cross between hard science fiction, riot grrls gone wild and cyberpunk which has yet to pick up a U.S. publisher, deals with a two-strand narrative. In the distant future, a Y-virus has wiped out nearly every male on the planet, leaving male clones (taken from existing tissue) to carry out a simulated program that involves teenage girls battling in a mall. Sullivan’s novel is stacked to the nines with ideas. In fact, as if channeling Kathy Acker’s ghost, it opens daringly with a girl masturbating with a gun and somehow manages to elude heavy-handedness. It’s truly the work of a writer to watch.

However, Sullivan’s too obsessed with girls wearing Red Hot Chilli Peppers T-shirts or handing over a Snapple. Okay, Tricia, we get the consumerist angle. It’s clear enough by the title. But why would Sullivan choose bands like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers who have long lost their lustre in the present among the teenage crowd. Why not take a speculative fiction environment and create brand new companies? Isn’t that a good deal more fun?

But even more infuriating is how these pop cultural asides get in the way of Sullivan’s fascinating effort to explore feminism. The product concentration detracts from the intellectual expose and dates the book almost instantly. Which is interesting because it was published in 2003.

Conversely, Richard Yates’ fiction (which I’ve finally begun reading after Lizzie threatened to have several Young Republicans remove one of my testicles) hasn’t dated at all. Even a story like “A Glutton for Punishment,” which deals with a 1960s-1970s corporate environment (and should date), still packs an emotional punch, while achieving a startling purity. I suspect that it’s because Yates avoids product placement and uses sparse terminology (“cubicle” is mentioned once) to describe his environments. He is more concerned with what a character is feeling, the look on another person’s place, the heat of a room, etc.

I used to believe that this so-called literary product placement was of value in fiction. The immediate example that came to mind was an image from a Stephen King novel that I can’t immediately recall: something along the lines of a Skippy peanut butter jar filled with coins. The image’s startling presence, however, has more to do with the effort to remove all the peanut butter from a jar and use it as a piggy bank.

The problem with using brands as shorthand for character attributes is that, when we’re considering the perseverance of fiction, today’s telltale brand could be tomorrow’s failure. (Who can’t chuckle at the Pam Am flight seen in 2001, which immediately undermines its future?) I’m inclined to believe that unless fiction involves a specific time and place, on the whole, brands really don’t belong in literature.