Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Revolutionary Road -- deconstructing the American Dream

Director: Sam Mendes, 2008. (R)

The American dream. We have been spoon-fed this panacea since childhood and many have bought into it. Not Sam Mendes. The director of Oscar-winner American Beauty brings us a similar story but set in 1955, a deconstruction of this delusion. And like that earlier film, this drama is cold and crisp. But this one reunites Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time in a decade, and they fit together again like an old shoe, with sure and splendid chemistry.

Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) meet at a party. She is a young aspiring actress, he is a blue-collar worker who does not know what he wants out of life. Cut ahead 7 years and they are married with two kids, living in suburban Connecticut in a charming starter home. Frank Wheeler works in an office for the same company his father retired from. April Wheeler stays at home as the typical housewife. Isn't this the archetypal American dream?

But this American Dream comes at a price. Frank is bored and April feels stifled. She wishes she could pursue her earlier dreams of acting or travelling. She comes up with a plan: they sell their house, pull their savings, and move to Paris, a city Frank loved from an earlier visit and one she pines to see for the first time. After much coaxing, he agrees. She will get a job and he will be free to search out his passions, an opportunity for both to rejuvenate and find life.

Mendes brings Helen (Kathy Bates, who also appeared with Winslet and DiCaprio in Titanic), a realtor, into the Wheelers lives. And it is her adult son, John (Michael Shannon, Shotgun Stories),  a man with mental and social problems, who functions as the key foil to verbalize the issues that are lying below the surface of this suburban family. He has the best and most incisive lines in the film. Pointing out the price of the American Dream, he says: "You want to play house you got to have a job. You want to play nice house, very sweet house, you got to have a job you don't like." That is Frank to a tee.

The phrase "American Dream" first appeared in 1931, in James Truslow Adams' book "Epic of America": "The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." He went on, "It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations." This original version of the dream focused on self-actualization and was purposefully vague, since each person's development would differ from another. But slowly, this has shifted and settled into the picture of the American Family in the American Home with material wealth and consumeristic goods and toys.

There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to grow to our fullest development. But the current version of the American Dream is not synonymous with Adams' vision. We can live the dream if we pursue our unique and inherent abilities, focusing on refining them, not on the finance that might be derived from them. Artists are a typical example. They often strive to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, but as they perfect their craft their improved creations are testament to the development of the person. For them, the true American Dream is to be able to make their ultimate creation.

Of course, biblically we can only grow into our truest and fullest development in Christ (Col. 1:28). And it is only in him and by his Holy Spirit that we can do or make anything of ultimate worth (Isa. 64:6). All else is considered hay or straw that will finally be burned up (1 Cor. 3:12-13). By his strength and through his grace, he can accomplish great things with us as his vessels (Phil. 4;13). Where does the American Dream fit into God's plan?

John identifies another issue with the suburbanites who are pursuing the American Dream: "Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness." He has put his finger on the problem. Chasing the American Dream, collecting toys like trophies, satisfies for a moment but leaves us empty in the end, with a feeling of hopelessness.

Things, even humans, will never fill that emptiness that lies within. Neither will they offer permanent hope. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician, said: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." And only Jesus can offer real hope, a hope for our soul that transcends the trappings of this life and moves into eternity (Tit. 2;13). The American Dream pales in comparison to the Heavenly Dream.

Circumstances conspire to prevent Frank and April from moving to Paris. Their idyllic marriage begins to crumble, just as their American Dream itself is deconstructing. She shouts,
I wanted IN. I just wanted us to live again. For years I thought we've shared this secret that we would be wonderful in the world. I don't know exactly how, but just the possibility kept me hoping. How pathetic is that? So stupid. To put all your hopes in a promise that was never made. Frank knows what he wants, he found his place, he's just fine. Married, two kids, it should be enough. It is for him. And he's right; we were never special or destined for anything at all.
She thought she was special, but finally gave up on that idea.

She is wrong, though. We are all special. Being made in the image of God imbues us with this quality (Gen. 1:26). And though original sin (Gen. 3) has resulted in this imago dei being marred (Jer. 17:9), we retain it in part (1 Cor. 11:7). Moreover, God has sent his only son, Jesus to become one of us, a human, to offer a way out of our dilemma (Phil. 2:6-8). His perfect life and perfect sacrifice paid the price; the punishment for our sins he bore when he hung and died on the cross. Now God has prepared good works for us, his new and special creation, to do in his kingdom endeavor (Eph. 2:10).  He offers us the Divine Dream, one that is for us priceless, but for him was infinitely costly. Will we continue to pursue the dead and deconstructed American Dream? Or will we consider and embrace this Greater Dream?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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