Herein the primary definition of tragedy: A dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction. In many colloquial settings, the word is overused to describe anything bad that happens to anyone. An old man gets cancer and dies: a tragedy. A baby is struck ill with an incurable disease: a tragedy. A plumber is accidentally killed in an auto accident: a tragedy. But, definitionally, this simply is not so. If a great person falls, due to some great flaw in his character, then we are talking tragedy. The rise and fall of a despot could be tragedy. The rise and fall of a great artist, too. But the term has been so run into the ground that it is void of meaning in most usages, including reviews of literature or film. A classic example comes in reviews of novelist Richard Yates’ book, Revolutionary Road, and subsequently of its banal 2008 filmic turn. Why? Because a marriage ends when one of its protagonists (or antagonists?) commits suicide; even though that character has not a scintilla of greatness within her. So, wherein the tragedy?
In my review of the novel I wrote:
In many ways, the Wheelers are the literary equivalents of the central character in Woody Allen’s 1978 drama, Interiors. Played by the actress Mary Beth Hurt, the lead character is a young woman named Joey, the middle sister of three, who, despite wealth and privilege, a male companion who loves and supports her, still feels a desire to create — something, anything, even though she is clueless as to what to create, and her past attempts have been met with derision by those around her because she lacks any real talent for art. Joey is ordinary, but so ordinary that she lacks even the insight to grasp that she is ordinary. And the Wheelers are Joey squared. They are Joeys, but instead of crafting a novel of corresponding depth and complexity to ground their situation in an adult and compelling manner, Yates either took the easy way out, or was simply overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the novel form. Or, both. And, having skimmed over some of his short stories again, this seems the likeliest reality.
How else to explain the Dumbest Possible Action trope of the novel; wherein, just as in Hollywood films, the characters do not act as moderately competent human beings would, but act in dumb ways just to push the heavy-handed plot along? How else to explain the lack of depth in the characterizations, rather than the characters? Not the lack of the characters depths, but Yates’ inability to show that lack well? I.e., — the Wheelers may be talentless and clueless, but Yates did not have to portray such so stalely and ineptly. His cluelessness as to the depths of their cluelessness is akin to writing about characters being bored by crafting dull prose — that sort of recapitulation is simply not good writing. And, I could write a whole essay several times the length of this one just on how utterly clueless Yates is in his grasp of the female psyche. From April on down to the lesser female characters, Yates bases all of his female characters on how a male (with added tits and a clit) would react to a given situation. As thin as Frank and all the other male characters, save Shep, are limned, the females get off even worse — reacting either on histrionics, predictable stereotypes of female behavior, or plain old male fantasies run amok.
In short, the film version of Revolutionary Road recapitulates all of the book’s flaws, and then does even worse with its short-shrifting of Shep, possibly the book’s best character. In the film he is reduced to a lustful adulterer; nothing more and his declarations of love for April seem bizarre, whereas in the book the reader understands his motives. On the plus side, whereas the book misses many opportunities to give a 1950s feel to the tale, the film succeeds much better, in large part due to a terrific film score by Thomas Newman. The cinematography, by Roger Deakins, is rather pedestrian. And, although it was not a great film, director Sam Mendes’ earlier American Beauty, covered much of the same ground as this film does, in the SUBURBS ARE HELL vein.
Like the book, the film starts off abruptly, and tosses us into the maelstrom of the Eisenhower era marriage of Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), dilettantes without any chance to either connect with nor care for these characters. Both end up having affairs, both dream stupidly of running away from adulthood to live in France, but Frank is a bit more grounded, and after he is offered a promotion, and she gets pregnant with a third child, they decide to stay put. He comes to realize that there is nothing special about him, save perhaps for some sales talent, but April — a failed actress — clings to the delusion that she is special, but she’s a Joey. The only person with any insight into the couple (shallow and predictably Hollywood as it is) is John Givings (Michael Shannon), the whack job son of the real estate agent, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), who sold the Wheelers their home. She, in turn, is a petty busybody with a long suffering husband, Howard (Richard Easton). The other major characters are Shep and Millie Campbell (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), the Wheelers’ neighbors, and the young co-worker (Zoe Kazan) who Frank seduces. In the end, April suicides by giving herself an abortion, and Frank moves away. There are minor differences from the book, but the film ends with the same moment, Howard Givings turning down his hearing aid as his wife gossips on about the Wheelers and the new couple she sold their home to.
The DVD, put out by Paramount, has some deleted scenes, and a solid making of featurette, Lives Of Quiet Desperation: The Making Of Revolutionary Road, along with an audio commentary by director Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe. Overall, it’s a solid commentary, but the best I can say for it is that I’ve heard worse. It’s not too didactic, and Mendes does eschew the normal fellatio that passes for critique in commentaries, but he does praise the performance of his wife, Winslet. And, the truth is that both Winslet and DiCaprio are quite good. For once, DiCaprio’s natural baby-faced stupor works to his character’s advantage, much like Tom Cruise’s aided Eyes Wide Shut (that stiff’s best performance by far). Unfortunately, Yates’ novel and Haythe’s adaptation give them little to go on; although considerably more than the couple’s initial teaming, a decade earlier in James Cameron’s abysmal Titanic. Interestingly, for trivia buffs, that earlier film showed the death of DiCaprio’s character while this shows the death of Winslet’s. One can only assume that a third pairing of the couple will off them both. Dear heart? As for the commentary, the biggest solecism comes near the film’s end, when both director and screenwriter claim that April’s death was not suicide (it clearly is in the novel, and actually quite clearly in the film, too — it’s called perception), and even more glaringly, Haythe declares April’s death ‘a heroic act.’ Huh? PC run amok? Or do both simply not get it? I opt for both, and this is part of the problem why both art, in general, and especially Lowest Common Denominator mass media art, like the shit Hollywood proffers, is so bad. Its creators simply are clueless as to even the basics of interpreting not only art, but human emotions, conveyed in the art, and by the characters.
In fact, in both the novel and the film, the defining quality one sees is cowardice. Both of the Wheelers are cowards, in that neither seems to fully want to recognize that they are ordinary people, with ordinary lives and ordinary responsibilities, although it is April who is the biggest fool. Her only oppression comes not from the suburbs (oh, how bad it is to live in peace and security!) but from her own overweening sense of self-importance, even though she has never accomplished a thing of note. Her idiocy (and I’m not even counting her drinking, smoking, and extramarital sex while pregnant) even goes so far as to cajoling Frank, in soap operatic nonsensical fashion, into abandoning their lives for Paris by cooing that this will let him be a man; as if hairy-balled Hemingwayvianism is the only way a man can be a man: working at a job to support her and the kids is not enough proof, apparently.
Overall, Revolutionary Road, the film, is at about the same artistic level as its progenitor novel, with a few more pluses and minuses. That its flaws were not corrected falls on the shoulders of Mendes, who has a tendency to make didactic films that proffer vacuous platitudes, while its pluses seem to be immanent in the fact that a lost era’s sensibilities and styles can be more easily and quickly conveyed via visual art rather than the written word. As an adaptation, the best way to have brought out the book’s strengths would have been to eliminate all the clichéd melodramatic moments and focused, instead, on a single event in their shared lives, then explored the characters more deeply. That adaptations do not do this more often is puzzling, since, as an adaptation, there is that very license to adapt the damned thing! That means reducing flaws and maximizing good qualities. Instead, however, Mendes is content to let his characters, incapable of rational thoughts beyond clichés, prattle on and on and on. But, fear not: take a cue from Howard Givings and . . .