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The Price of Conformity: Life on "Revolutionary Road"

How do you break free without breaking apart?

Count me among those who missed Revolutionary Road last year. I was too hooked on Mad Men, AMC's stylish series about ruthlessly competitive ad men in 1960s New York, to want another period film set on the cusp of the same era.

Only after watching the film recently can I say my assumptions were decidedly off-track. Adapted intelligently from Richard Yates' path-breaking 1961 novel of the same name, Sam Mendes' 2008 film has less pizzazz than Mad Men, but a deeper engagement with the psychological and social tensions that below the surface roiled 1950s America: the obsession with status; the struggle with boredom; the tension between risk and safety; the price of conformity; and the presumption that men and women were locked on fixed paths, with every minutiae of their lives worked out in advance.

Frank (DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Winslet) are a lively, eye-catching couple who buy a house in a quiet suburb on the presumption that they're special. There's something about them, they believe, that sets them apart from their neighbors. But their lives have become stuck in a rut; and April, whose acting career has fizzled, wants them and their two young children to relocate to Paris, to recapture the joys of their youth and the pleasure of living spontaneously, without the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses.

The film's thoughtful tag line is: "How do you break free without breaking apart?" It's a powerful question to which the film finds no easy answer. Breaking free isn't straightforward when everyone around you expects you to stay just as they think you should be. To that end, it's worth noting that the film was released in Spain as Sólo un sueño ("Only a Dream"), a pithier statement about the necessity—and price—of April's longing.

Those who lived through the 1950s may counter that the film (like Mad Men) is at times a caricature of the period. The real fifties were far less conventional, with large numbers of people pursuing their own dreams and paths. Fair enough; Yates' novel is but a snapshot of suburbia. But what he and the film capture so well is the way characters obsessively monitor the boundaries between sanity and insanity, partly to rein themselves in and prevent others from changing. Even to step a fraction out of the mainstream, in the film, is to incur charges of immaturity, neurosis, pathology, then full-blown madness.

When Frank and April share their plans with neighbor-friends Shep and Milly, for instance, the latter think that even the wish to leave Revolutionary Road—the ironically named suburban road on which they live—is a sign of immaturity. Milly later breaks down in tears of envy and sadness, but not before Shep has indicted Frank for being somehow less of a man for failing to support his wife financially in France.

Meanwhile, the Givings, another set of neighbors, have a gifted son who has earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics and traveled extensively. "I think he finds my friends a little conventional, quite frankly," his mother tells April. "I suppose you could say he's an intellectual."

But John Givings also has a temper and a drinking problem. After reportedly breaking a coffee table during an argument with his mother, he's put in a psychiatric asylum and given electric shock treatments. Thirty-seven of them, to be precise. "Supposed to jolt out the 'Emotional Problems,'" he states wryly. "Just jolted out the mathematics."

John turns up in two key scenes in the film, and is both times a yardstick by which the Wheelers gauge whether they themselves are "mad" for wanting to leave suburbia. Are they "running away" from their problems, as their neighbors see it, or "running toward" another life less scripted and constrained?

In the first scene, John quickly gets to the heart of one issue governing the lives of his parents and the Wheelers. "You want to play house," he says, characterizing their thinking, "you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don't like. Anyone comes along and asks "Whaddya do it for?' he's probably on a four-hour pass from the State funny farm. All agreed...?"

The Wheelers laughingly agree. Indeed, when April is later alone with Frank, she observes: "You know, he's the first person who seemed to know what we were talking about." Frank responds: "That's true. Maybe we are just as crazy as he is." But April insists: "If being crazy means living life as if it matters then I don't care if we are completely insane."

In the second scene with John, things get a lot more heated. He doesn't take well to the Wheelers' deciding to stay put because April is again pregnant: "What happened, Frank?" he sneers. "You get cold feet, or what? You decide you're better off here after all? You figure it's more comfy here in the old Hopeless Emptiness after all . . .?" His parents quickly remove him before Frank can hit him, insisting he's "not well." But John cuts through the baloney, to voice powerful home truths. What seems to trouble him most, with April, is the thought of them betraying their best hopes, becoming conventional, and settling for what they don't truly want.

Granted, the 1950s represented much more than a decade of conformity. But is it coincidence that the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders appeared in 1952, and did so bearing such newly defined mental illnesses as "Inadequate Personality Disorder," "Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder," and "Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder"? The last of these, as I posted earlier, stemmed from military memos from the U.S. armed forces, which were applied without change to a civilian population consisting of housewives and businessmen: the Wheelers, in fact.

Just as the Wheelers' marriage looks as if it will crumble irrevocably, with Frank laying the charge that his wife isn't a good—or sane—woman if she has second thoughts about having another child, he too reaches for a diagnostic label for her, to turn her misgivings into something more ominous.

All of which may lead us to ponder, as the final credits roll: On that score, have we really made as much progress as we'd like to think? Where DSM-I listed 106 mental disorders in 1952, we now have (with DSM-IV) upwards of 297. And the 130 pages of DSM-I have ballooned by more than 700 percent, to 886 pages in DSM-IV. Follow me on Twitter @christophlane