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Watching The Wrestler recently, I suddenly decided that Darren Aronofsky is committed to making the ugliest-looking films possible. I didn’t see The Fountain, but all of his features are aesthetically unattractive. Part of this is how dedicated he is in the details of subculture, whether it be mathematical Jew gangsters (or something? I haven’t seen that movie since it came out and even then I was bewildered by what was happening), awful people on drugs, or beat-up beat-down run-down over-the-hill wrestlers. Some of the wrestling scenes–most especially a time-warping one in the film’s midsection–are gruesome to look at, full of blood and metal and pierced skin.

The movie does not exist without Mickey Rourke’s performance as The Ram, and what a lovely, lived-in piece of work it is. It is impossible to look at Rourke’s battered features and the comeback narrative and not conflate performer with character; this kind of confluence of star and vehicle is exceedingly rare, and oddly the best examples I can give are all women: Bette Davis in All About Eve, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. It hardly seems performative, and there are no actorly flourishes, making his character feel remarkably alive and present, almost as if it’s a documentary rather than a narrative film (the sometimes irritating camerawork reinforces this suggestion, as do the backstage scenes filled with actual pro wrestlers, all of whom are actually quite charming and surprisingly goofily pleasant). The superlative honesty of Rourke’s performance also bleeds into that of Marisa Tomei’s. The worst thing that happened to Marisa Tomei’s career was her early Oscar win; it has underrated her ever since and she only ever seems to pop up every few years (increasingly naked, I might add) to give a performance that reminds people that she is, in fact, a gifted actress. The other main performance is by Evan Rachel Wood, who for some time now I have thought to be full of potential. She isn’t required to do much in the film besides slap on a Jersey accent (pretty good) and be Emotionally Scarred, but even then she felt indelible, showing the voids that she and The Ram create in one another.

For all of the downer possibilities, the movie also has its funny moments, almost all of them intentional (the only unintentional one is the Vampire Weekend poster in Evan Rachel Wood’s house, because that’s what the young people are into!). It’s the greatness of Rourke’s performance that he is as nimble in the dramatic moments as he is in these lighter ones, whether it be the complete joy he has in charming the customers at a deli or calling Kurt Cobain a pussy who ruined music (in fact, this scene–where Rourke and Tomei are rocking out to Ratt in an empty bar–was my favorite moment of the whole movie). In spite of a rote construction full of stock characters, The Wrestler succeeds with its lingering tone of small, graceful ease.

*

Far from easy is Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, a trip back to the suffocating suburbia of American Beauty. Though where his debut film was ugly, ironically cartoonish pop, Revolutionary Road is polite parlor music that that threatens to lull you to somnolence before you realize the house is burning down.

Richard Yates’ novel must have been a powerful indictment when it was published in 1961; reading it in 2009 makes it feel silly, trite, and didactic. The thematic and narrative thrust is compelling, and there’s this constant ominous current of doom and sadness that enables you to forgive the grandstanding monologues of the characters (and they are monologues rather than dialogue; these people aren’t talking to each other so much as serving as mouthpieces for Yates’ thesis in a construct of conversation).

It feels unfair to fault the film for adhering too closely to the book, especially when it excises seemingly important details later on, but the first hour of the film is a staggering bore and chore to get through. The audience is almost immediately thrust into a wildly dramatic argument between April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio), full of actorly gestures and staid blocking and camerawork (though the movie is remarkably handsome throughout). Afterwards there are flashbacks that never fully explicate their love for each other, nor their seeming specialness. What I found interesting in the novel was a tacit understanding that while you were supposed to be critical of the conformity of the suburbs, you were also right in being critical of the Wheelers as above-it-all elitists entitled to their snobbery based on nothing approaching fact. There really is no reason for the Wheelers’ feeling of superiority aside from their constant proclamations of it, and the warding off of the crushing realization that comes when you realize you’re “just like everyone else.” One of the bigger tonal mistakes the film makes is that we’re supposed to sympathize with the Wheelers through and through, never critical of them and their attitude or behavior.

The film is brought to life through the introduction of John (Michael Shannon), on leave from a psychiatric institution. The purpose of John’s character is to break the politeness of societal norms with a scathing honesty, because Only The Truly Sane Would Be Called “Insane” In This Suffocating Society. If this movie were set in the South, he would be the Magical Negro. Because it’s in the Northeast, he is Crazy White Person Who Speaks The Truth. In spite of the ludicrousness of his character’s construction, Shannon provides a live-wire energy that disrupts the primness of the film up to this point–and this includes the direction and the acting.

The movie is only as good as Kate Winslet’s performance, which may be why the film picks up in the second half. Winslet is an actress I love (her performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, to me, our generation’s Annie Hall), but lately she has been sloppy in her Actorly Perfection, as if she is Becoming Meryl Streep and buying into her own hype. The flaws of her performance in Little Children are continued throughout Revolutionary Road, which also seems to have bought into its own hype: there’s an unending seriousness that is almost parodic, and Winslet’s irritating performance often seems less real than hyperreal, less how people were in the fifties than how people in the fifties were in movies. Yet Far From Heaven and Julianne Moore they are not; there is no awareness of the artifice. If in Far From Heaven they take the irony of rigidly performing the artifice in straight-face to ultimately induce honest pathos, Revolutionary Road and Winslet play pathos with so rigid a straight-face it ironically becomes dishonest artifice.

The film is far better at being Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than it is at being Far From Heaven, which is why it picks up in the second half, as does Winslet. When April begins an evisceration of Frank’s manhood filled with a mixture of disinterest, disgust, hate and fear, you see traces of the old Winslet, and the film begins to soar on her shoulders. Unfortunately, even this blow-up is so properly, primly shot that any of the tangible energy you feel from Winslet and DiCaprio is presented with no real sense of passion. I have not seen Jarhead, but American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road have proven Sam Mendes to be a thoroughly pedestrian, mediocre filmmaker.

DiCaprio gives a far more successful performance than Winslet, in that he generally seems to be playing a real person. Throughout the film, he is reactive and alert, and subtly suggests that he is on to his own bullshit. He infuses his monologues with both anger and doubt, as if realizing his entitlement of intellect and good looks has still made him mediocre, and is desperate to deny the epiphany. DiCaprio ably portrays Frank’s increasing sense of shallowness in so small a way that when he is attacked by Winslet in their Woolfian final fight (as well as by Shannon in John’s last appearance), you see a man not full of righteous fury but instead a frightened boy backed into a corner. His line-reading of “Why do you live in my house if you hate me so much?”–red-faced, shaking, crying while trying not to–is one of the few truly moving, jolting moments I’ve seen in the Oscar-bait films of 2008. DiCaprio has become quite the actor, and I think the weathered lines and slight paunch on his iconic face has only increased his watchability.

Revolutionary Road is a deeply flawed film, full of too much talk and not enough suggestion (while adhering strictly to the novel in terms of dialogue, it throws away many of its silent moments that would have made for tremendously moving visuals), and stilted performances by Winslet and Kathy Bates that clash with the refined burning of DiCaprio and spark of Shannon–as well as the shruggingly natural performance of David Harbour as Shep, my actual favorite character in both the novel and film (though he is underwritten by novice screenwriter Justin Haythe) as an oafish man who yearns for more but realizes he deserves none of his dreams. That, in fact, would have been a far more interesting film to me, but even with the missed opportunities and missteps, the now-tritely didactic sociology, Revolutionary Road manages to finally compel and move you with the force of its story.

Also it’s still better than Dumbdog Swillionaire.

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