Revolutionary Road

The first scene in “Revolutionary Road” is of a young man and a young woman meeting at a party and charming one another with small talk, clearly destined, in the shorthand of movies, to fall in love. The next scene jumps forward several years, to when they are married with children and completely miserable. A close-up of the man’s face shows lines of weariness, cynicism, and exhaustion, a complete reversal from the youthful vigor he showed just moments earlier.

This is all the more startling when you consider the face belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio, who heretofore has looked so babyish that he’s often had to wear facial hair in movies just to look like a grown-up. This is the first time he’s looked like the 34-year-old man that he is — heck, I’m the same age and rarely party till all hours of the night with supermodels, and I don’t look nearly as weather-beaten as he does in that close-up. How much of it is Leo and how much is makeup, I don’t know, but it’s perfect for setting the tone of the film, which is that holy crap, being in a loveless marriage can really suck the life out of a person.

Based on Richard Yates’ acclaimed 1961 novel, this is the fourth film by director Sam Mendes, and like his others — “American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” and “Jarhead” — it deals with the disintegration of the American Dream. Alienation and disillusionment are the watchwords here; this is not the film to see if you’re looking for light, frivolous entertainment. But it reflects humanity, as great art often does, in a way that can be cathartic, and this is largely thanks to the central performances by DiCaprio and his old “Titanic” buddy (and Mendes’ wife), Kate Winslet.

They play Frank and April Wheeler, a middle-class suburban couple in the mid-1950s with a lovely home on the titular street. Frank has some kind of sales-related job with Knox Business Machines in New York City. It’s the same company his father worked for, and it’s the same type of company that thousands of other men Frank’s age work for now, all of them dressed in drab suits and boring hats and identical ties as they scuttle out of trains and into skyscrapers every weekday morning at 8:55. April stays at home with the kids, a young boy and a girl, and diverts herself by acting in atrocious community-theater productions.

Carefully placed flashbacks show Frank and April in happier times, but now they are stagnant and resentful, at least under the surface. Outwardly, they’re still trying to be happy, deciding on a whim to take the kids and move to Paris later in the year. April can get a well-paying job as a government secretary, and Frank can figure out what it is he wants to do, since working at Knox Business Machines apparently isn’t it. This change is something to look forward to, a reason to keep going.

The Wheelers are friends with their neighbors, Milly (Kathryn Hahn) and Shep (David Harbour), and they take perverse pleasure in the scandalized looks on their faces when they announce their unorthodox Paris plans. They are also friendly with Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), the Realtor who sold them their house. Helen, one of those talkative upper-class New England types who uses words like “dollop” and “toodle-oo,” has an adult son, John (Michael Shannon), who’s been in a psych ward recently. It is John who acts as the catalyst for some of the film’s most intensely emotional scenes.

While on a walk in the woods, John, Frank, and April get into a conversation about life, in particular the “hopeless emptiness” (Frank’s words) of it. John is impressed. “Plenty of people are on to the emptiness,” he says, “but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

It apparently also takes a crazy man to hold a mirror up to the Wheelers’ relationship. John spits out things in a psychotic dinner-table outburst that sum up, a bit too perfectly, what the movie is trying to say. The novel plays out the same way, but I have to ask: Are there not subtler ways of doing this? With actors less skilled than DiCaprio, Winslet, Bates, and Shannon, and with dialogue less pointed than what Yates (by way of screenwriter Justin Haythe) came up with, these pivotal moments would be howlers. Let’s just say it’s a weak narrative device that’s been well executed.

Winslet and DiCaprio, no strangers to critical accolades, are both terrific again here. Winslet’s performance is consistently on-target, with just enough showiness here and there to remind you that you’re watching a professional. DiCaprio stands out a bit more in my memory, mostly because of his work in that crucial argument scene. It’s easy enough to play one emotion; here, DiCaprio plays several at once — hurt, angry, betrayed, embarrassed — with raw, fearless vulnerability.

The film’s recreation of the martinis-and-cigarettes era, coincidentally now reminiscent of the “Mad Men” TV show, is superb, adding another layer of quality to what is already a polished, accomplished production. If you’re looking for a sad, well-crafted time at the movies, this is your best bet.

B+ (1 hr., 59 min.; R, some harsh profanity, brief nudity, some moderately strong sexuality.)