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Lost in suburbia: (l-r) DiCaprio and Winslet in Revolutionary Road.

Out-of-Date Cynicism

By Ann Morrow

Revolutionary Road

Directed by Sam Mendes

Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes has said in interviews that he wanted to film Revolutionary Road because he loved the novel. Author Richard Yates, acclaimed for his depictions of the postwar “age of anxiety,” is also known for his books going out of print. And in this post-9/11 era of global terrorism, Yates’ scathing depictions of the American Dream—Revolutionary Road is the name of leafy street in 1950s suburbia—seem more irrelevant than ever. And so Mendes’ prestige production, starring Kate Winslet (his wife), Leonardo DiCaprio, and the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a shellacked, out-of-sync diatribe about a time (or at least an economic climate) that seems unhampered and optimistic in retrospect.

Less so for women, of course. Revolutionary Road isn’t especially feminist, though; in fact, its sympathy for Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) is the script’s least predictable discourse. The film opens with, and sustains, a note of stiff politeness. Frank is watching his wife, April (Winslet), perform in a play. The play, something about soldiers, isn’t very good, and April is worse, as members of the audience point out audibly. During the drive home, the couple’s tension escalates into a vicious argument: Frank tells April she’s sick, April tells Frank he’s disgusting, she walks away, he pounds the hood of the car, and neither of them is able to acknowledge that April’s dream of being an actress has fizzled into humiliation.

In flashback, April’s flashback, we see the couple meeting for the first time, and April is so taken with Frank’s description of his sojourn in Paris during the war that it colors her view of him through the early years of their marriage. Stifled by the routine of being a housewife, she proposes that they move to Paris, so Frank can quit his humdrum job with a business machine company and discover what it is that he really wants to do, while she supports him and their two children working as a secretary for the U.N. or some other important, high-paying organization. Frank sheepishly admits that he doesn’t have an artistic talent to discover, but caught up in her enthusiasm, and stung by criticism at work, he agrees. Frank takes more delight in flummoxing his coworkers and neighbors with this bohemian plan (not that the Wheelers, or any of their acquaintances, knows what bohemian is) than he does with the particulars of the move.

When April and Frank both receive (what might have been) happy news, the plan shifts from impractical to nigh impossible, and their undercurrent of marital passion turns destructive. The gender reversal is that it’s April who goes stone-faced and silent while Frank needs to talk things over. A mentally ill dinner guest (Michael Shannon), the son of their cheery real estate agent (Kathy Bates in a thankless role), inflames their problems with his button-pushing belligerence. Only Shannon’s powerhouse performance overcomes the inherent clichés of this social-misfit-savant.

Revolutionary Road doesn’t have the satire, sly affection, or narrative moxie of American Beauty (for which Mendes, who came from the theater, received an Oscar). It does have an evocative, rather than nostalgic, authenticity, and its polished realism affords more pleasure than the characters do. The Wheelers, April especially, might’ve been intolerable if played by actors without the considerable talent of Winslet and DiCaprio (Kate and Leo together again! barely registers because the characters are so different from their iconic pairing in Titanic). Winslet has won a Golden Globe, and DiCaprio is just as deserving, if not more so.

However, the film’s slight but noticeable thread of contrivance dissolves into melodrama, and the film ends with a cheap shot at the expense of Bates’ character. Frank’s Dictaphone, April’s sheath dresses, and all of the film’s wonderful 1950s touchstones deserve better.

Heroes

Defiance

Directed by Edward Zwick

After the onslaught of Oscar-bait movies around the holidays, one usually expects a return to cinematic crumbs in January, but the gods—of the studios, that is—have favored us with at least one more stellar production. Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick, is at once a solid retelling of a little-known chapter in history, a tense study in survival, and a compelling tale of brotherly conflict and solidarity. It is a good-old-fashioned movie in its straightforwardness, but that is not to imply stodginess or retro charm. Rather, it is the kind of well-made, well-written story that packs a powerful punch—and used to be the bread and butter of Hollywood.

Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) is the perfect director for this material, which was adapted for screen by Clayton Frohman from a book by Nechama Tec. After the murder of their parents by Nazi collaborators, the four Bielski brothers, headed by Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber), head for the forested mountains of their native Belarus. Determined to survive, they are initially confounded by ever-increasing numbers of other refugee Jews seeking shelter and protection. The revenge-minded Zus wants nothing to do with these largely helpless stragglers, whereas Tuvia, no less brutal when necessary than Zus, decides that the best defiance against the Nazis is simple survival. Thereupon, he makes the remarkable decision to accept and protect any Jew, regardless of his or her handiness with weapons. Over time, hundreds of Jews survive because of the Bielskis.

What’s interesting, and what Zwick shows in brilliantly edited scenes, is how that survival developed. Tuvia gives men and women equal opportunity to learn to shoot. The intellectuals, not so handy with a gun or a hammer, nevertheless provide valuable support in building a sense of community among the refugees. As David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, observed, the rules of sexual engagement are turned on their head, as university-educated young ladies find heretofore unappreciated skills such as killing and food gathering, well, sexy (not to mention downright essential to the future of the race). There’s a great scene, both humorous and touching, in which a woman delicately offers herself to Zus’ protection.

Beyond the grim aspects of life in a snow-swept and timbered landscape, Defiance focuses on the relationships among the brothers, especially between Tuvia and Zus. Sure, it’s kind of old- fashioned, but the push-pull of love, devotion, jealousy and resentment between siblings still exists. Zus resents Tuvia’s leadership role among the Jews, and he sneers at his brother’s unwillingness to engage the enemy as often as possible. He questions Tuvia’s decision, rooted in sheer survival instinct, to partner with the Russian army, although Zus himself eventually fights alongside them for a time.

I’ve always thought of Schreiber as more of a cerebral actor, but here his brute physicality is thoroughly convincing, even menacing. And yet, there’s a soulfulness deep within. Craig has the much harder role, because he has to convey a leader of determination and grit without coming off as, well, Biblical. What helps is that we are allowed to see his character’s doubt and insecurity—even his out-and-out fear. Tuvia is a great leader, in part because he isn’t perfect and Teflon; another incredible scene occurs when a deathly sick Tuvia is forced to stay behind as Zus leads a band on a dangerous mission to steal medicine from the Germans. The sheer terror of not knowing what’s happening in the enemy camp is as unnerving as being forcibly sidelined, of not being able to lead as is expected. The dilemma of taking action versus waiting for redemption is felt throughout Defiance, but perhaps never more so than at this moment.

—Laura Leon

Little Big Man

Notorious

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

In hindsight, the East Coast-West Coast rap “war” of the 1990s was pretty dumb, just a huge digression from the point of rap music. An art form that until this point had been about rising above and telling the stories of the streets was, thanks in large part to the Bad Boy-Death Row feud, folded back on itself and turned into nothing more than an extension of the street lifestyle. Rappers were suddenly no different than the hustlers on the streets they rhymed about; beefs that could have been settled with words were settled with guns. Seems kind of childish in a really horrific, adult way.

Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” “Biggie Smalls” Wallace never had the opportunity for such perspective. Gunned down at the age of 24 as retribution for, many believe, the murder months earlier of his former friend, rapper Tupac Shakur, Wallace was the most prominent casualty of a feud that had escalated well beyond the bounds of reason.

But Notorious, the Biggie biopic directed by George Tillman Jr., would have you believe that Biggie had some kind of revelation in his last days, that he had seen the error of his ways and was ready to transcend his past and be a responsible adult. The film does this by allowing Wallace to narrate from the great beyond—the ultimate hindsight. It’s a cheap stunt, an attempt by the filmmakers to make audiences sympathize with a character who’s been nothing but a selfish brat his entire life.

Opening with the night of his death, the film quickly flashes back to the rapper as a young man (played by Wallace’s son with Faith Evans, Christopher Jordan Wallace) growing up in “do-or-die Bed-Stuy,” where he’s being raised by his mother (Voletta Wallace, played in a clenched performance by Angela Bassett). From there, we see his transition from straight-A student and reluctant mama’s boy to teenage crack hustler, to inmate, absentee dad, and eventually to the hip-hop superstar he would become.

Unfortunately, Notorious is full of more catchphrases and clichés than a Puff Daddy record. The grown Wallace, played by Jamal “Gravy” Woolard, is a walking contradiction, at least in the universe of this film. We see the rapper lovingly attending to his sick mother, then treating all the other women in his life (not to mention the children he fathered with them) like garbage. But the neat-and-tidy closing minutes show Biggie spending his last days with his kids, being respectful to their mothers (Faith, played by Antonique Smith, and Jan, by Julia Pace Mitchell) and making up with his on-again-off-again lover, Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton).

The script misses a lot of opportunities to put things in real perspective: At no point does Biggie reflect on his missed potential as a student, nor his philandering past. There’s no introspection until those possibly fabricated last days. And the peripheral characters are uniformly one-dimensional. Lil’ Kim is nothing more than a hanger-on; Tupac (Anthony Wallace) is an easily led party boy. The one character who comes out spotless—Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke)—just so happens to be the film’s executive producer. Fancy that. Regardless of your feelings about Biggie as a rapper (and he was, undeniably, very talented), Notorious will do little to improve anyone’s feelings about him as a human being.

—John Brodeur


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