At the very instant of birth, only one indisputable element of anyone's fate is sealed without hope to change. That is, a person will die. Human beings can live legendary lives, transform the landscape, and leave indelible marks, but we can't avoid that final act. We can eat right and exercise and craftily dodge all the ailments floating in the atmosphere just itching to penetrate our systems and drag us into the grave, but father time marches on knowingly confident that he will overcome in the end. Eventually – eventually and inevitably, under circumstances auspicious or cruel, noble or degrading, we will weaken, fade, whither, and take in breath one last time. Much like life, love – in its grandest cinematic meaning – is doomed from the outset. As much as we hate to admit it, because love (specifically love in art) is celebrated as the golden emotion and has been placed in an ivory tower upon the loftiest pedestal, love (romantic of course, not familial) is equally destined for a fall.
David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road are two morbidly heavy, keen to the point of assaulting studies of love in its very mortal, very finite cycle. Benjamin Button, the more entertaining and creative of the two, concentrates mainly on the subject equation, depicting in fantastical fashion love/life's precious and fleeting essence. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born in 1918, and though he takes the form of an infant, he suffers the infirmities and perceptible features of an octogenarian. Through a not entirely apparent phenomena (possibly related to a clock that runs backward in a New Orleans train station) Benjamin ages in reverse. He becomes physically younger with every passing year and the filmmakers pull off a marvelous digital trick having us believe in every impossible transformation. At some point during his adolescence he meets a classically young beauty named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and Daisy is thoughtful enough to see beyond the wrinkled brow, white hair, and crooked spine. She somehow connects with Benjamin and he with her in a manner that cries out true, unequivocal love. The question is: Can these two children of destiny overcome the challenges of traveling in opposite directions? Can they meet in the middle? It is not spoiling anything to say that after a series of independent adventures they do find their short window of time to play in the sun and fulfill that deep emotional craving. While it is tragic enough to watch blossoming love eventually grow stale (as the participants do so simultaneously), it is ever more difficult to witness a relationship falter as one partner grows older and the other younger. The film is nothing if not, well, curious – curious and sad. Fincher builds his story brilliantly (however, I could have done without the flashback from the hospital perspective) as we travel along with Benjamin through his childhood in an old folks home where he is raised by its director (superb Taraji Henson) and learns a bit about death and having to constantly say good bye. We then follow him out to sea, to Russia and an incredibly effecting mini-romance with a married woman (Tilda Swinton), to war and loss, and each scenario is framed with an almost coincidental casualness, as though Benjamin's predicament is not leading him anywhere specific. Yes, he embodies an odd disease/miracle, but he is otherwise victim to the randomness of occurrence as anyone else. The movie never depicts him as a “chosen one” and that is quite refreshing. He travels where the wind takes him. Much like this film's godfather, Forrest Gump, Benjamin is a hard working, well meaning person with significant luck, but that is not attributable to anything else but a solid upbringing. This first half of the film, discovering Benjamin as he discovers himself, is its best. Once Benjamin meets up with Daisy (again), this time after a devastating accident – the accident introduced by a mood-killing, pedantic, insultingly obvious omnipotent narration – the movie loses its way and its mystique. We are left to trudge to the finish line with one eye on the clock. But maybe that's a fair analogy. Perhaps our feelings for this movie accurately reflect the arch of love between two people. All the intense, pent up passion between Benjamin and Daisy which kept the film so taut and engrossing for an hour and a half is a mortifying drain once they unite and are free to express their devotion.
Though it is joyless to watch Daisy and Benjamin crumble, it is understandable. They are both headed for the diaper aisle, he Huggies and she Depends. Yet their collapse is as predictable as any other great and storied love affair. I always thought that if any of the paradigmatic romantic films (Pretty Woman, Dirty Dancing, Sleepless in Seattle) fast forwarded five years from the closing credits it would be utterly depressing to see the state of the union. That's why the sequel to, for example, Karate Kid, is ironically appropriate. The writers were forced to create a new love interest for the lead based on casting issues, but it kind of made sense anyway, because love doesn't (normally) last, even when portrayed as perfect on screen.
One couple that will not require a follow-up appointment are the Wheelers of Revolutionary Road. We meet them once before they are married as dashing Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) charms ravishing April (Kate Winslet) at a party and tells her about his ambition to “feel things.” When we find them again time has passed and passions have cooled. All the big dreams of being unique and non-conformist that the attractive pair once harbored have all but evaporated by the time they settle down with a few kids in suburban Connecticut on cheery Revolutionary Road
The fact of the matter is there probably never was anything revolutionary about Frank or April, but Justin Haythe's screenplay based on the Richard Yates novel keeps matters ambiguous, teasing (and frustrating the hell out of) the audience, asking us to decide murky issues of decency, independence, commitment, and faith. The Wheelers may look perfect and stable, but like many couples that mysteriously disengage in the night, beyond their Greek god exteriors, irreparable damage trembles beneath the surface like spidery cracks spreading over the icy pond. The Wheelers are as cowardly and as reluctant to face life's disappointments as the rest of us, and as the years pass, the fear to change meets unbearable resistance in the fear to remain the same. The façade of truth and beauty so central to young, hopeful romance has dissipated, and monotony combined with irritating habits rule the day.
But this is not The War of the Roses or Mr. & Mrs. Smith or even The Break-Up. There will not be over the top episodes of violence or elaborate plots for revenge or even something as innocuous or commonplace (nowadays) as divorce. Revolutionary Road is content to be a powerhouse film, anchored by Winslet and DiCaprio's tremendous performances, about an ordinary troubled marriage; the kind that is taking place right now in a handful of houses on your block – perhaps even in your own. Mendes has unleashed an excellent film, but I dare you to watch it with your significant other. If it does not touch or expose raw nerves, then it will create them. The film begs couples to silently debate who is in the right (or who is less wrong). Is Frank doing his best and coming up short? Is April just a tad shy of sane? Do they care for each other? Did they ever? Was their relationship doomed from the outset or did they just not work hard enough?
If you can leave the theatre holding the hand of someone you love, kissing him or her gently, with a carefree spirit and optimism, then I presume you are new to each other, dating, and distracted. If you depart the same way and have been together for more than a year – well, guess what? You have unlocked the secret to true love, God bless you. Now all you gotta do is figure out how to defeat father time.