Revolutionary Road is one of those rare ambitious dramas Hollywood puts out during Oscar season to make it look like they care about people older than a teenager. They don’t. If you want to see top drama, you have to go to American television, respected around the world for its excellence. I was recently in Paris to teach the 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class, and all the press wanted to talk about – print, radio and television – was the amazing writing on American TV dramas like Mad Men, The Wire,and Lost.
Everyone had high hopes for Revolutionary Road, since it’s based on a much-loved novel of the 50s by Richard Yates. But that just makes the film all the more depressing. And that’s because the writing is shockingly deficient. This film is actually a fascinating case study for screenwriters and directors, especially when you compare it to American Beauty. Both films were directed by Sam Mendes. Both explore the sterility of marriage in the suburbs. But one is a modern classic while the other is a sincere but undeniable failure.
What’s the difference? The script of course. These two films are yet another proof that the screenwriter, not the director, is the true author of the film. And when a film fails, we have to go to the script to find the causes (for a breakdown of American Beauty, click here).
Like American Beauty, Revolutionary Road bases its story on as ambitious a theme as a modern-day writer can take on: how do you live a meaningful life in middle-class suburban America? Suburbia promises that we’re all the king or queen of own castle. But once you are living comfortably in that castle, are you really free? Is that the true recipe for a good and satisfying life?
Revolutionary Road takes on that vast and complex theme full bore, and what power it has comes from a theme that challenges people where they live, and how they live, like no other theme can. It forces the audience to take a lifetime perspective on their own lives, and very few films or TV shows do that.
But an ambitious theme is also much harder to pull off. AndRevolutionary Road’s technique, its artistry, is simply not up to the task. In fact the film is so alienating in its techniques that it loses even those in the audience who really want it to succeed. Plot is virtually non-existent; it hits the same beat in almost every scene (to be fair, some of that blame must go to the novelist). This forces the dialogue to carry the story, something dialogue cannot do.
As a result, the dialogue in almost every scene is overtly thematic, on-the-nose and on the same subject: live your passion, escape your dull suburban life. We thought we were special, we want a better future, but we find we’re like everyone else.
Okay, I get it. Mendes has said, “It might be more difficult to distance yourself from the opinions of the writer and the filmmaker” if the film is set in the present, whereas “you never feel lectured to or instructed when you’re watching a period film.” Not so. This shows a glaring lack of understanding of what makes great dramatic writing.
With such a lack of technical artistry in the storytelling, the question of course becomes why. As always the reasons become clear when we explore the story’s structure, and especially when we apply the seven major structure steps. It turns out that the battle scene – the biggest and final conflict between the hero and the opponent – which usually comes at the climax of the story, comes here at the beginning. In the opening scene the two leads meet in a bar. Each is full of promise. In the third scene, the two characters, now married for many years, have a vicious fight in which they lay out every argument the story will express. In effect, the story is over in the third scene!
In a good battle scene at the end of the story, the writer can and should make the competing values of the characters explicit. This is where the theme first pops in the mind of the audience. And it pops with power because until then it has been woven below the surface through the story structure. In the Great Screenwriting Class, I talk extensively about how to express a theme powerfully, through a moral argument of action. In other words, by what the characters do in the story. Instead of sending a message, you move and inspire an audience from their core.
The seven steps are what make thematic power possible, because they are the way a good story develops organically. When you ignore the natural unfolding of these steps, as for example when you push the battle scene to the front, the thematic elements are flashed in big neon letters. The audience backs off. And the story has nowhere to go. A story is like a shark; it always has to be moving. When it stops, it dies.
Another way to see Revolutionary Road’s failure is to see it as the drama of inaction. April’s solution to her and Frank’s suburban paralysis is to say to her husband: maybe you could go to Paris and find yourself. Sounds good, but it doesn’t mean anything. I’m not arguing that this attempt to find meaning isn’t real. Our lives are full of things we might have done, along with solutions we desperately construct that are as flimsy as tissue paper. But that doesn’t make for good drama.
Revolutionary Road is a great example in story terms of beating a dead horse. I feel bad for the horse, but I wish I could have stopped watching a long time ago.