Saturday, January 31, 2009

Death By (Inner) Suburbia

I admit I haven't seen the new Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet film Revolutionary Road. Since it is rated R for nudity (and since my conscience is rather Puritan when it comes to movie sexuality) I'm sure I won't go see the movie either. But perhaps the book would be worthwhile.

Revolutionary Road the movie is based on Richard Yates 1961 novel of the same name. The plot sounds pretty predictable. Frank and April Wheeler live with their two kids in a posh Connecticut suburb of New York. As they grow increasingly discontent with work, family, and life in the burbs, they devise a plan to move to Paris so as to reinvent themselves and loosen the reins on their artistic sensibilities. The result is lots of marital conflict, infidelity, and unending unpleasantness for the horribly unpleasant Wheelers.

As you might imagine, Revolutionary Road has gotten plenty of rave reviews as well as Golden Globe and Oscar attention. Of interest to me, however, was the largely negative review in The Weekly Standard by movie critic John Podhoretz, who argues that the film adaptation, while faithful to the book's basic plotline, entirely misses the savage satire of the original.

What makes Revolutionary Road [the novel] so memorable is not its story of a dissatisfied young couple, the Wheelers, who hatch a disastrous escape plan from the leafy suburbs of New York where, they are certain, life is being choked out of them...No, what gives Revolutionary Road its unforgettable resonance is Yates's fundamental dismissal of the grievances of his characters. Whatever woes they have are entirely of their own making. The Wheelers are fools to believe that their lives are horrid when they and the marriage they have contrived together are the only really horrid things in it. And they are fools to believe they are better than the people around them, a view that derives directly from those novels and works of sociology Revolutionary Road is subtly parodying in its portrait of the Wheelers.

As Adelle Waldman put it in a brilliant piece that ran on the New Republic's web site, "Yates isn't seduced by his characters' emotions, no matter how earnestly experienced; he lays bare the roiling pools of vanity and narcissism that underlie them."

The suburbs have their problems like every other human locale this side of heaven. Bourgeoisie America has its serious flaws too. But its the inner suburb that really kills us. The problem is less tract housing, prosaic jobs, manicured lawns, and whatever else seems to suck the life out of us, and more all the ways our hearts betray us with feelings of self-importance and self-regard, not to mention the illusion that we can find ourselves without losing ourselves first (Matthew 10:39). The human heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick; who can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9)?


dave bish said...

ISounds like an intruiging film.

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