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Revolutionary Road (2008) -vs- American Beauty (1999)

Bryce Zabel, Editor-in-ChiefThe Smackdown

The hype around “Revolutionary Road,” of course, will center around the fact that it re-unites Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) for the first time since the mega-super blockbuster “Titanic.”  But smacking “Revolutionary Road” against “Titanic” would be like comparing apples and sailboats.  The real competition is between the family dysfunction of the 1999 Oscar winning “American Beauty” and the latest “Revolutionary Road” portrayal, both filmed by British director Sam Mendes.  If Jack had survived and he and Rose had gone on to settle into the suburbs, they might have ended up like Frank and April Wheeler.  Whether that couple would be as compelling to view as Lester and Carolyn Burnam, there’s the battle ahead.

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The Challenger

“Revolutionary Road” tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple of once-free spirits who have moved into the suburbs of 1950s America and are slowly dying inside.  The problem appears to be that neither one of them are the people they once were and neither one of them likes who they’ve become or who their partner has become.  This is a tough spot for any couple with two children but in the America of that time where sexism is rampant, everybody smokes and drinks, and nobody says what they mean, it can be deadly.  The film is not full of event, it’s full of small details of daily life and decaying marriage, realized with a spot-on intensity.  It feels so true to human nature than whenever you see anything that even remotely reminds you of yourself or your own marriage, all you can do is cringe.

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The Defending Champion

If you haven’t seen “American Beauty,” you probably at least know that it won the Oscar for “Best Picture” and that Kevin Spacey took home the “Best Actor” award.  Written by Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”), it takes us inside the (dead) head of Lester Burnam (Spacey) who is living a life of nearly-silent desperation in the suburbs when something just snaps.  It’s not played for comedy, but it is funny, but also tragic.  The thing that snaps, apparently, is Spacey seeing the nubile blonde cheerleader played by Mena Suvari at his daughter’s high school and deciding that he needs to bed her.  But first he sheds all the vestiges of his life, like his job, his quiet civility, his straightness, several pounds of body fat and even his attempts to appear normal.  He deserves that Oscar and the plots and sub-plots that surrounded his performance only gave it the world to emerge from.

The Scorecard

In the last year, both the writer and the director of “American Beauty” have tried to reclaim the magic of the moment.  Screenwriter Alan Ball gave it a shot with “Towelhead” and fell drastically short, by most accounts.  Director Sam Mendes made a better film than his earlier collaborator.

First, let’s go tonal.  “American Beauty” is funny/creepy.  “Revolutionary Road” is sad/creepy.  There’s no question that the earlier film is the more commercial, despite all its risk-taking.  Kevin Spacey’s angry desperation has moments of high comedy.  There’s not a laugh in the entire running time of “Revolutionary Road.”  Nor is there a tear.  It’s sad without being truly emotional.  It’s more pathetic.

Mendes, however, has grown even better as a director in the last decade.  So, rather than this pathetic quality being a turn-off, it’s a turn-on.  He lets these characters breathe.  There are many, many moments of no dialogue where much is said, and powerfully so.

This latest film feels quite a bit like Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven” which was set in the same time period and focused on another perfect marriage falling apart.  It also feels a little bit like Todd Field’s “Little Children.”  Both were uncomfortable, hard-to-watch, critically acclaimed films that, as I recall, did practically no box office.

“Revolutionary Road,” however, feels a lot like AMC’s “Mad Men,” especially with the constant drinking, smoking, blatant sexism and repressed desires.  That does not necessarily bode well for success.  At least “Mad Men” is free to watch from the comfort of your own home.  This requires paying parking and popcorn.

The thing that sucked you into “American Beauty” was its sense of dreaded normalcy.  It felt familiar (at least to me) yet it held such dark secrets. “Revolutionary Road” has a great sense of dreaded normalcy, too, only it’s about your parents’ or grandparents’ lives.

The Decision

I wouldn’t be surprised if the “Titanic” reunion angle (it also includes a key role for Kathy Bates) actually gives “Revolutionary Road” a significant boost at the box office.  We know with its acting and directing pedigree it’s going to get a lot of Oscar attention turned on it.  The thing about this new film, though, is that while “American Beauty” was a really high-class date movie at the theaters, “Revolutionary Road” is a nearly perfect home DVD experience.  It’s small, thoughtful, beautifully realized and the kind of uncomfortable experience that you might want to watch and absorb by yourself or a loved one without being in a crowd of people.  “American Beauty” has many layers and can be seen multiple times.  It deserved the Oscar it won and, in this case, up against an able opponent, it still deserves to convincingly win this Smackdown.

About Bryce Zabel 196 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, creator of five produced primetime network TV series, and fast-food frycook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of "Movie Smackdown." While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. That, plus the fact that he has a new StudioCanal produced feature film, “The Last Battle,” shooting this summer in Europe about the end of World War II. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and a past enthusiast of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. His new what-if book series, “Breakpoint,” just won the prestigious Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and has so far tackled JFK not being assassinated and The Beatles staying together.
Contact: Website

6 Comments on Revolutionary Road (2008) -vs- American Beauty (1999)

  1. The intention is so clear that everything else falls into place, perfectly. Kevin Spacey’s suburban husband and father reminded me of his character in “The Ref” and that could only be a good thing. Annette Bening and her giggle works wonders here. Their marriage is a tabloid version of a “Who’s Afraid To Virginia Woolf” Which means very close to someone we know. The biggest surprises in the film. besides the amazing dexterity of Sam Mendes at his first outing behind the camera, are West Bentley. Chris Cooper, Thora Brch and Allison Janney. As I’m writing this 8 years after its first release, the Oscars and the whole hullabaloo, I’m very surprised that West Bentley hasn’t become a major star. He is amazing in “American Beauty” the complexities of his character are based on recognizable human stands, the hardest to face up to and I went where he went. Thora Birch is lovely as the object of his attention and the film, I believe, is here to say.

  2. I still need to see REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. Hopefully I think it is good.

  3. Jason, I can answer that for you. Studios invite us industry types to screenings at the end of the year to create buzz for as-yet-unreleased films and to remind award voters of films that may have come and gone. Also, many films are promoted with DVD screeners mailed to members of the Directors Guild, Writers Guild, Editors Union and other professional organizations. While it’s lovely to receive all the “For Your Consideration” DVD’s, most films deserve viewing on the big screen with an audience. Watching at home, no matter how great your home theater, is a completely different experience.

  4. Just watched a clip from the new movie Revolutionary Road, and it looks like it should be pretty cool. Plus, the film was just nominated for 4 Golden Globes including best picture and best actor/actress!

  5. Interesting comparison — one that convinces me to go see REVOLUTIONARY ROAD which I probably would have passed on. Yep, I’m the “glass half empty” guy so the tone should appeal to me. Plus the repressed ’50s are always an interesting period to look back upon — especially when it comes to science fiction films as you so well know…
    Robert A. Nowotny

  6. Found your site from Stumble Upon. Voted in all your polls. Do you post the results? Also, how do you guys see all those films before they’re even in the theaters?

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