“Every map is a fiction. Every map offers choices.
It’s even possible to choose something beautiful.” –D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir
Revolutionary Road tells a story Hollywood loves: suburbia is holding you back, its conformity is keeping you from being “yourself,” as if that self is something entirely separate from circumstance. Sam Mendes, having already dealt with contemporary American suburbia in 1999’s American Beauty, tackles the even more readily stereotyped 1950s version of suburban life in Revolutionary Road (an adaptation of the 1962 novel by Richard Yates, which I admit to never having read). Though the acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet may indeed be impressive, even the best acting in the world can’t render sympathy for two such narcissistic, deluded characters as Frank and April Wheeler.
Before dropping in on the Wheelers several years and two children into their marriage, the film begins with a brief scene showing us Frank and April meeting at a party, and we learn that while April is trying to be an actress, Frank really doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. A later flashback to another scene from their dating life involves April telling Frank that he’s the most interesting person she’s ever met, though we viewers are never given a clue as to what makes him so special. In fact, the most frustrating thing about the Wheelers as characters is that they view themselves as different from everyone around them, and therefore in danger of being trapped by all the inferior, uninteresting people surrounding them in suburban Connecticut.
If Revolutionary Road took the trouble to question the Wheelers’ viewpoint, it would be a far more “interesting” (to use the Wheelers’ favorite word) film. However, it seems to take their assumptions about themselves and about 1950s culture in general at face value. It would be possible to sympathize with Frank for feeling trapped in the city job he hates, at the company where his father before him worked, and to sympathize with April for feeling frustrated with her life as a housewife, if they didn’t feel so ridiculously proud of themselves for wanting something other than “convention” (and also if they weren’t both sleeping around with other people). We learn that they first bought the house in the suburbs because April was pregnant, implying that children have somehow brought this entrapment upon them. The film never really addresses the fact that the Wheelers made a choice here; they must have, at one point, bought into the cultural myth that the suburbs are the only place to raise children. Sure, children would have imposed some limits on their choices—that’s what life tends to do, children or no—but there were still choices available to them, and they picked one option out of many. It’s hard to feel much pity for people who have chosen the very comfortable lifestyle that they then proceed to whine about for the rest of the movie.
Finally reaching the boiling point of marital conflict and suburban ennui, April comes up with the brilliant idea of moving to Paris, where she will be the family breadwinner while Frank tries to figure out where his true skills lie. This plan of course begs the question: why Paris? Why couldn’t they try the same plan much more cheaply in the U.S.? Part of the answer seems to be that, in spite of all their snideness towards their peers, the Wheelers actually do care about what other people think. They couldn’t be so revolutionary as to let people in the U.S. witness April supporting the family. Heaven forbid they do something truly radical, like, say, moving to the South and working as sharecroppers: there wouldn’t be good wine and cheese!
Despite their supposedly countercultural stance, Frank and April (and, it seems, the film) are utter conformists to American individualism. “Finding themselves” is more important than serving any sort of larger community, even the tiny community of the family. (Their children seem to enter not at all into the Paris plan, until April finds out that a new baby is on the way, which leads her to consider abortion.) And while the 1950s in general ignored the truth that children are probably happier when they sense that their parents are happy and fulfilled—in other words, parents’ needs and children’s needs are not some sort of zero-sum game—the Wheelers go to the other extreme, believing that their individuality is more important than any sort of life they have created together with their children.
The most disturbing thing about Revolutionary Road is that it leaves unquestioned the assumption that a mere change of location will address deeper, spiritual problems. If you’re bored and frustrated in Connecticut, you’ll probably end up bored and frustrated in Paris. It’s a truth of existence that Christian monasticism, in particular, has plumbed. The desert fathers and mothers of early Egypt recognized that, if you can’t be at peace in a tiny cell, you won’t be at peace anywhere. Cassian (ca. 360-425) dubbed the problem “acedia” (a term explored at length by Kathleen Norris in a recent memoir) and described it thus:
“When this [acedia] besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. . . . We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand . . . . Finally we conclude that there is no health for us as long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.”
The Wheelers’ acedia is obviously nothing new or special. What they lack, as many of us do today, is the desert tradition’s wise response to acedia: the willingness to submit to your circumstances and your surroundings, and to learn from them. As Abba Moses, another early desert father, said, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Hollywood is so fond of painting suburbia as a jail cell or a trap; what would happen if our movies had the humility to portray limitation as the source of unexpected blessings? It is possible to choose something beautiful, even in suburbia.