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Friday, July 24, 2009

Revolutionary Road

At some point, I don't know exactly when, I thought to myself, "There is something wrong with Sam Mendes."

Despite two strenuous performances by DiCaprio and Winslet, Revolutionary Road is one of the coldest, most ineffective movies I have seen. I was reminded of the vague uneasy I had felt during American Beauty. I had no idea what it was. At the time I thought it was rather clever (thanks to Alan Ball's satirical instinct), but the ex-boyfriend I saw it with thought it was despicable, and he could not quite explain why, either.

Like American Beauty, Revolutionary Road has glimpses of sharpness and insight, which I have to suspect come from the writers. However, RR is fundamentally a didactic movie, a terrible example of all telling and no showing.

Would its deficiencies have been so obvious without the unfortunate contrast to the TV series Mad Men? Possibly. The suffocating 50s American suburbia in the movie might not have appeared so false and fake if it weren't compared with Mad Men. I might buy into a shred of the characters' angst if I hadn't seen Mad Men. It would still be a failure, but might not feel like such a spectacular one.

No matter how hard the two actors work and work and pour themselves into the lines and the performance, they were no more than cardboard cutouts, mouthing hollow words, desperately trying to give the characters a drop of hot blood. It was useless. They look flat. The dialog sounds contrived. The world is artificial. There is not one detail that feels like life. The movie has no life.

One of the many details in the movie that bothered me to no end was that the two children of the Wheelers hardly had any on screen time. And when they were on screen, they hardly said a word. They seemed so much like a piece of forgotten furniture in a make-believe house. This piece of artificiality is all the more bizarre because he has a child himself. He has a young son with wife Winslet, and a stepdaughter from Winslet's first marriage. Yet he directs a movie about family life like a lonely antisocial man.

So I asked myself while watching everyone struggling bravely on screen, "What is wrong with Sam Mendes?"

At first I thought he was being ironic. Perhaps this emotional arm's length, this coldness for the characters, and all the endlessly ridiculous and contrived dialog, emoting, and angst are meant to an academic exercise and are intended to be self-consciously abstract, like Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven." As a movie went on I gave up this theory. Recalling American Beauty and what I had read about his new movie Away We Go, I was convinced that this is who he really is. A shell of pretension and concepts with no real connection with emotions, with others.

I'm not Kate Winslet, so I do not really know Sam Mendes the person. I do not really know whether in life he is a distant, self-absorbed, anemic, sneering creature, a pale shadow of a human being. If life, he might be a very nice person and capable of intimacy with his wife and children. But it is clear to me that, in his work, he cannot relate. He cannot relate to the audience or make the audience relate to him. Everyone in his movies is a clever, glossy wax figure, including his fabulous actor wife. They preach his messages, his hatred and disdain, for ... I have to suspect it is the married life that he hates and despises.

This is the ultimate barrier for one to become a true a storyteller, no matter how clever, how intellectual, how brilliant he is: If he likes not people, he has no hope. It is all over. He can excel as a philosopher, a scholar, a critic, an analyst of history or science, but he cannot tell stories, because he cannot evoke a swell of feelings in others. He cannot move others, and perhaps cannot be moved by others either. He has no empathy and insight for the trivial, idiosyncratic, absurd, contradictory mess of humanity, and the breathing warmth. This flaw, for storytelling, is fatal.

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