Revolutionary Road struck me as disturbingly underrated, lost among an exceedingly stellar array of films released in 2008. In the first place, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio reunite for the first time since Titanic. Only this time, they actually made it to New York, the honeymoon is over, and kids are in the picture. Oddly enough car sex transcends both films. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), a director quite familiar with films about dysfunctional families living in the suburbs, helms this character study set in 1950s Connecticut. Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) commutes to New York each day to work at an unnervingly standard desk job while his wife, April (Winslet), raises their two children. As with any suburban film, a great deal lies beneath the surface. April failed as an actress and, Frank needs a challenge. Intent on overcoming the mediocrity of their lives, April convinces her husband of the need for a change – the relocation of their family to Paris. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it would seem.
This film, though riveting in its own right, is an interesting development in a long line of suburban character studies stemming primarily from American cinema in the 1950s and ‘60s. Following an atrocious war and amidst a revitalized economy, the middle class set it sights on the American dream and, thereby, a suburban lifestyle. Films in this vein focus on the imperfections of this idealized atmosphere, culture, and way of life. Most scenes involve drinking, smoking, going to get drinks, arguing with a spouse (often while drunk), and feigning contentment for the benefit of children and friends. As a suburban film, Revolutionary Road directly examines themes and topics to which similar films at most allude. Contemplating the potential differences between this film and a suburban film actually made in the ‘50s, I came across The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, a distinguished screenwriter, producer, and director (to a lesser extent), this film explores the emotional and fiscal strains of sustaining an urban household by working for a large corporation. A businessman, Tom Rath, commutes to Manhattan for work each day while his wife maintains their household. During the commute (between war flashbacks), Tom receives a tip about a job opening with better pay in public relations. He decides to pursue the position in light of recent financial difficulties, coming to find it much more difficult than originally expected.
Because these two films share several key elements, their differences are astounding. Revolutionary Road examines the struggle of a married couple to break out of the norm, even by unethical means (i.e. an internal struggle). The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit considers the struggle of a married couple to maintain a family and their integrity despite an unethical corporate world and pressing emotional and financial issues (i.e. an external struggle). Specifically, the latter film focuses on the pitfalls of juggling a demanding job and family life as well as postwar society while the former centers entirely around the stifling nature of ‘50s suburban culture. The latter portrays suburban culture in a flattering light. It’s only in the process of obtaining the resources to maintain this lifestyle that problems arise. The former looks back upon a dull and monotonous way of life fostered by the culture and setting of this time period. Perhaps the distinction lies in the sum of the current cultural trends of the United States. Today’s audiences might well have found the settings of Revolutionary Road and even The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (despite its generally upbeat portrayal) dreadful in comparison.