Thursday, March 26, 2009

Revolutionary Road

There have been many potent critiques leveled against the American Dream. From Death of a Salesman to American Beauty, the darker ‘untold’ story of American suburban life has been told. While joining this long list of criticisms, Revolutionary Road departs from it in some important ways.


Like many, this story begins with a young couple that falls in love, marries, has children, and finds a house in the suburbs. The husband, Frank, takes a job he hates and is ‘too talented’ for and his wife April feels trapped and bored in her role as suburban housewife. Sounds typical, right?

Wrong. Most other stories have frustrating but likeable characters who end up sticking it to the man or living the life they always imagined upon an enlightening/ empowering experience. Lester Burnham of American Beauty fits this bill well. In Revolutionary Road, nearly everyone is despicable, blind, and completely lacking in courage. The one man who sees clearly the world Frank and April find themselves in is John Givings, a recently released psychiatric patient and former math professor. Here are a couple of his more powerful insights:

In speaking about the suburban way of life, he says, "Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."

Then, in an argument with Frank about April's second (surprise) pregnancy and why Frank took a promotion at a job he hates instead of moving his family to Paris to start over as he had planned, Givings remarks, "I wouldn't be surprised if you knocked her up on purpose, just so you could spend the rest of your life hiding behind that maternity dress."

Unfortunately, Givings sees only ugliness, so much so that he is completely incapable of finding a role in society. Herein lies the underlying theme of the movie: There is no alternative to a seemingly absurd world. While one leaves the film convinced about the futility of suburban married life as an end in itself, a deeper angst comes from the film’s intentional failure to articulate an alternative. I left asking myself, “If no this, then what?”

It’s a tough pill to swallow but, once taken, I think it unearths our deepest insecurities as young American hopefuls.


AC said...

Haven't seen the movie, but from your remarks, I guess the obvious question -- IS there an alternative? I mean really, for Americans unable to get out of the city, suburbia seems like a distant dream; for Americans unable to get out of suburbia, everything ELSE seems like a distant dream (i.e. Paris). The point is, our lives are and will always be affected by limitations, whether spatial, emotional, or logistical.

The choice we have as is how we choose to accept our realities and/or how we choose to completely forgo them for something else while keeping in mind that the something likely will be equally unsatisfying on some level.

Movies like this frustrate me, because while they get at that gnawing "What if?" question posited by most new adults, they fail to underline the fact that the protagonist CHOSE to be where he is in his life (married in suburbia), and where he is frankly, is pretty damn awesome. And yes, this comes from me, the anti-suburb.

I'm unabashedly cynical and blunt on this point, because the greater world IS brutally absurd and grossly unfair. But dwelling too much on this without realizing how we can make the best of our shortcomings as they parallel and interact with the world's limits is the real tragedy, not merely failing to see an alternative situation when frankly, it doesn't (and probably never will) exist for such characters.

Dave said...


I think you're hitting on an important point here. You're absolutely right in that we make choices and need to basically deal with the consequences.

For me, the interesting question at this point in my life is, before I make these life-binding choices (marriage, children), what alternative vision of human flourishing can I be aiming toward.

As always, thanks for your thoughts and putting up with my angsty posts :)

Adam said...

David, David, David. Did you just review a movie? Seriously?

You continue to amaze me. This was the only "big" movie of last year that I (intentionally) didn't see, but I loved every bit of your write up. Do it more often.

AC said...

Anytime! Your "angsty" posts always smack of hope. They depart from the irritating 'kilself?omgah!' line and thus, inspire reflection.

Have you read "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits"? Fantastic set of short stories and different takes on the new adult theme relocated to the Middle East.

Justin Edward Ellis said...

A lot of people seem to complain about the suburbs and think they're absurd. Especially the people who live in them, which is interesting. I think it's because they're often an illusion, an addictive illusion. Built to appeal to those searching for the best of city and country life who can't bring themselves to embrace city life or country life and all that would come with those choices. So for a lot of people it ends up being a sort of unsustainable, unhappy, in-between.