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‘Road’ pocked with emotional potholes

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet team up again in the emotionally twisting movie, ‘Revolutionary Road.’

At the tail end of a season where the most consistent emotion filmmakers offered was disappointment tinged with despair came the bleakest, most beautiful downer of them all.

“Revolutionary Road” was easily the best-acted film of 2008 and one of the most corrosive. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio give turbulent, astonishing performances as Frank and April Wheeler, a thirtyish couple whose relationship is one part “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” one part “Babbitt” and one part arsenic.

We first encounter them at a big-city party full of smart young people, making small talk and dancing close. “Frank Wheeler,” she says, “I think you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” That flattering first impression is gone in a flash.

With a single edit we leap ahead several years into their marriage, with April, a would-be actress, fumbling through a community-theater drama. Frank can scarcely conceal his chagrin afterward, and his condescending praise compounds April’s humiliation. Their drive home escalates from exasperation through pent-up resentment into a magma burst of seething rage. No one who has been witness to a disastrous marriage can observe this eruption without a shudder of sympathy.

Frank and April make a stab at buying contentment when they purchase a prim house in Connecticut. The address, on Revolutionary Road, is constant reminder of the adventurous paths they both fear to travel. As a couple, they endure coexistence without intimacy.

Richard Yates’ novel, the 1961 National Book Award-winner, took a merciless scalpel to the frustrations of midcentury suburban life. The Wheelers are trapped in stifling conformity, he commuting daily amid a crush of cattle in gray flannel to earn their bread, she tied tight in an apron at home, baking it.

But the couple’s festering discontents aren’t just an allegory of the time. Their fatal flaw is the unjustified belief that they are uniquely gifted creatures, superior to their surroundings — hubris is a defect in human nature with no expiration date. Frank flatters himself that he has artistic abilities untapped by his catalog-copywriting job. April wants to move to bohemian Paris, where she will type for the diplomatic corps and he will work on ... well, something creative.

By moving, April will convince herself she married an adventurous free spirit, not a timid phony. But Frank is a hollow creature, and so is she. Each begins sabotaging the getaway plan immediately. Each betrays the marriage with a cheap affair. She keens in wounded neediness and erupts in spittle-flecked rage. He is alternately baffled and belligerent.

Watching these two stars tear into each other is like viewing a bullfight. It’s unspeakably cruel yet mesmerizing. And the ironic casting of “Titanic’s” immortal lovers as brutal antagonists on a marital battlefield is initially funny, then deeply upsetting.

Passages of narrative ham-handedness weaken the story (a portentous discussion of the safest way to terminate a pregnancy virtually gives you a road map to the conclusion), but director Sam Mendes guides the actors to moments of tragic brilliance in almost every scene. This is a movie you can’t help but admire, even as it tears the bark off you.

If you go

What: “Revolutionary Road”

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

Directed by : Sam Mendes

Rated: R for language and some sexual content/nudity

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