Sunday, January 11, 2009

Revolutionary Road and the American Dream/Nightmare

If you haven't yet seen revolutionary road, go. It's a phenomenal movie.

Spoiler Alert!!

The movie follows a couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) who are falling into the suburban abyss - house, car, two kids, job he hates, housework all day for her. For a moment, it looks like they are going to break away and do something extraordinary. For a moment it looks like they might question the rules and be "unrealistic."

They plan to take off to Paris where she will get a job and he will figure out what he wants to do with his life. Their friends and neighbors are shocked. They want to see them fail. People who are too afraid to try something new, who are willing to live miserable, fearful lives always want to see you fail. You escaping is an indictment of their life.

The plan falls apart. They do not go to Paris. The hope and joy they had for a few brief moments dissipates. It dissipates, in part, because Kate Winslet gets knocked up (more on that later). The bigger reason that it dissipates is the dual trap of fear and success.

Leonardo's character is offered a promotion. He is offered more money and more prestige. He's offered a version of success that is socially acceptable, that meets the expectations his father had for him. His ego gets in the way. He is not strong enough to pursue what would make him happy, rather than admired.

I know so many people who complain about their lives. Yet, year in and year out, they continue living a life they hate in large part because they have been seduced by the money, prestige and admiration their position provides.

Is it really better to be a miserable lawyer or CEO or director of widgets? What if you could be a happier (if poorer and less envied) writer, bartender, or carpenter?

The other part of the equation is fear. It's scary to not follow all the rules. If you set out on a path not trodden by a million others, you are likely to fall down a few times. My favorite character in the movie is the (supposedly) mentally ill son of the neighbor. He is considered crazy because he refuses to play the game, because he tells the brutal truth. He is the movie's bullshit detector. He calls Leonardo out for being scared. "The hopeless emptiness is comfy," he says.

In the end, Leonardo gives up pursuing joy and resigns himself to the socially acceptable life. Kate Winslet succumbs to despair. She gives herself an abortion. She bleeds out and dies.

What is interesting about how the movie handles the abortion issue is that it does not explicitly talk about the illegality of it (although it is implied), nor does it talk about religion. The movie directly confronts only the idea that a woman who would want an abortion (or simply wouldn't want a child) is damaged, selfish, unloving, hateful, difficult, unmotherly, evil...

Leonardo may be miserable, but he has perks. He has the prestige of his job. He has the girl he is screwing on the side. He has his ways of getting off. Kate stays in the house all day cleaning. Sex last two seconds. Even when she has an affair, she gets no sexual satisfaction. She never gets to experience any joy. She's thwarted at every turn. And if she tries to break out, to live, she has to deal with the guilt of having internalized the labels of damaged, selfish, unloving, hateful, difficult, unmotherly, evil...

The movie ends with the couples neighbors in denial. One neighbor simply decides to never speak of them again. The other rewrite history in her own mind and claims that they were always difficult people.

I wonder if there are people out there who are really happy with their unquestioned, safe, suburban lives. I hope so. There are so many people out there living that way.

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