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THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

Ah, marriage

'Revolutionary Road' marks Sam Mendes' first collaboration with his actress wife, Kate Winslet. Sometimes on set he hid around the corner.

December 14, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

There are those who will see "Revolutionary Road," the long-awaited reteaming of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, as some deeply troubling coda to their famed cine-love in the top-grossing movie of all time, "Titanic." In that film, the duo played two dreamers whose lives are dashed by a gargantuan iceberg. In "Revolutionary Road," they repeat as dreamers, of the 1950s variety, only this time their future is sabotaged by conformity, fear and the acrid taste of self-loathing. It's as if Jack and Rose ran off together but it didn't end happily ever after.

From the look on his face, it's clear that this reading of the film has occurred to director Sam Mendes. "I'm not going to say that, but you can!" he says with devilish glee. With a thatch of black curly hair and rounded features, Mendes is pointedly not going there. That's messing with cinematic history, our complicated feelings toward icons in their iconic performances, and sometimes a movie is just a movie, a universe unto itself.

"Revolutionary Road" has its meta-theme also in Mendes' life. At 43, this baby-faced, Cambridge-educated Englishman is fast becoming the poet laureate of American suburbia, first with "American Beauty," now with the 1950s edition, "Revolutionary Road," and soon with another film -- this time a comedy -- about marriage. "Away We Go," an original screenplay by author Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, follows a young couple as they travel the country in search of the best place to raise their future child.

Yet, curled up in his chair in his Four Seasons hotel room, Mendes doesn't see the leitmotif of his work that way. "I don't think that I am obsessed with suburbia. But I definitely feel drawn to family dynamics and dynamics between parents and children and men and women. And that, you know, I find very fascinating and very fulfilling. And I don't have any axes to grind; I'm not on a crusade . . ." No unhappy traumas growing up to recycle, he says, though he notes he had a "complicated childhood" as the only son of divorced parents. In fact, he explains himself as "definitely obsessed by characters who are lost and are trying to find their way through life. Now to answer the obvious question: Are you a character who has lost his way? Well, maybe I am!"

Doesn't shy away

This said, Mendes does not appear lost artistically. Films about family have tended to migrate away from the big screen recently, but perhaps it's Mendes' gift to make ordinary, relatable life events feel big, even operatic, the way they feel to the people who must experience them. And he's deeply interested in love. "He's very romantic. He has a romantic way of looking around the world," says producer Scott Rudin, who has done a number of plays with Mendes as well as "Revolutionary Road." "The moment-to-moment detailed calibration of an emotional reality is what Sam does brilliantly."

"Revolutionary Road" certainly sears the mind -- it's like a post-traumatic-stress-disorder flashback for those who've experienced the troughs of married life, made all the more poignant by the real sensation that the young Wheelers of the film are actually groping to stay together, not fly apart. "In the middle of it is this ache, this longing to make it work," says Mendes. "This is a movie about people wanting to stay together and not being able to."

Based on the cherished 1961 novel by Richard Yates, the film is set in the era of the man in the gray-flannel suit, with the little wife who stays in the suburbs tending the 2.5 blond progeny, but it's not simply about cool retro cars, martinis at lunch and retrograde gender relations. The film turns around the suggestion -- by an increasingly disconsolate April Wheeler, played by Winslet -- that they chuck these stifling lives and move to Paris, a plan that at first makes her husband, Frank (DiCaprio), fall in love with her again but eventually grows to scare him.

"I would argue that she is one of the great feminist heroines," says Mendes. "She's the only person in the movie that is big enough to face the truth. You know well this is not a movie about a woman who wants to go to Paris. It's a movie about a woman who wants her life back and can still remember the dreams she once had and is finally wakening up, which a lot of people do in their 30s and 40s, who go, 'How did I get here? This is not what I wanted. But I never made the decision, this all happened in increments -- I had a child and I had to compromise and I had to do this and that and suddenly I've lost my way. Now I'm just like everyone else and I thought I was special.' "

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