Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes.* April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio).

AS DILIGENT A PORTRAIT of 1950s marital despair as forty-five million dollars can buy, Revolutionary Road (2008) reconstructs the stultifying suburbia of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel with tender, loving art direction, fastidious location scouting, phalanxes of extras uniformed as gray-flannel commuters, pinpoint casting of supporting roles, and the high-wattage domestic nuances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the unhappiest couple in those living-dead-end ’burbs. Despite the custom period detailing and root-canal intensity, it is undermined by a single crucial sound: piano notes plinking like a leaky faucet in a deluxe sink. Thomas Newman’s anachronistic, New Age–y score is the embodiment of “refined artistry,” aural Novocain injected into the movie at ever-increasing doses to both italicize raw emotions and stifle them in a choke hold of tastefulness.

Director Sam Mendes gave us American Beauty (1999), that classic phony critique of pure phoniness, and his faith in the power of prettification over tragedy hasn’t diminished. Revolutionary Road is ostensibly about how the illusions of Frank (DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Winslet)—a couple of erstwhile bright young things who are now thirty-ish and not nearly so bright as they once imagined—are stripped mortifyingly bare. They cling to denial and puerile let’s-move-to-Paris fantasies as their lives corkscrew into disaster; they're unhinged by the realization they’re neither different nor “special.” Yet the movie keeps seesawing between strict fidelity to the book’s delusion busting and Mendes’s innate desire to pose his actors as startlingly lifelike mannequins in a Macy’s display window or find the most beautiful possible way of shooting brute ugliness. When the time comes to stage April’s big hemorrhage scene, every shaky footfall is microscopically choreographed, the blood looks to have been measured out with a sterilized eyedropper, and the symbolic stain on her dress is bathed in radiant picture-window sunlight.

If there were an Academy Award for Best Surrealist Feminine Hygiene Commercial, this sequence would be a shoo-in—as marvelously poetic as it is subtly evasive. But as with the self-deceiving/defeating Wheelers, Revolutionary Road is always finding creative ways to euphemize unpleasant knowledge and erect buffer zones around duplicity. The film only sporadically utilizes DiCaprio’s sagging, stricken expression, which suggests reservoirs of loathing and recognition; Winslet’s great bitter cigarette-puffing face and strangely neutral voice tend to cancel each other out—the more frantic her character is, the more carefully regimented her acting becomes. Two eccentric minor players do stand out: Zoe Kazan as a Kewpie-doll secretary on her own secret wavelength and Michael Shannon as the archetypal truth-telling madman, his squinty-twitchy spiel performed like a mildly unhinged David Letterman rant.

While Frank dejectedly works for an entity called Knox Business Machines, the film hums along with a chipper sense of purpose, with everyone involved in its making convinced they’re doing deep, meaningful work: ripping off the veil of stultifying mediocrity instead of replacing it with the latest upgrade. At Mendes Bone Machines, “Production Control” is their proud motto: processing “the hopeless emptiness” of social constriction by recycling death's-head masks into all-American greeting cards.

Revolutionary Road opens in select theaters on December 26.

Howard Hampton