Ah, marriage

Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

There are those who will see "Revolutionary Road," the long-awaited reteaming of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, as some deeply troubling coda to their famed cine-love in the top-grossing movie of all time, "Titanic." In that film, the duo played two dreamers whose lives are dashed by a gargantuan iceberg. In "Revolutionary Road," they repeat as dreamers, of the 1950s variety, only this time their future is sabotaged by conformity, fear and the acrid taste of self-loathing. It's as if Jack and Rose ran off together but it didn't end happily ever after.

From the look on his face, it's clear that this reading of the film has occurred to director Sam Mendes. "I'm not going to say that, but you can!" he says with devilish glee. With a thatch of black curly hair and rounded features, Mendes is pointedly not going there. That's messing with cinematic history, our complicated feelings toward icons in their iconic performances, and sometimes a movie is just a movie, a universe unto itself.

"Revolutionary Road" has its meta-theme also in Mendes' life. At 43, this baby-faced, Cambridge-educated Englishman is fast becoming the poet laureate of American suburbia, first with "American Beauty," now with the 1950s edition, "Revolutionary Road," and soon with another film -- this time a comedy -- about marriage. "Away We Go," an original screenplay by author Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, follows a young couple as they travel the country in search of the best place to raise their future child.

Yet, curled up in his chair in his Four Seasons hotel room, Mendes doesn't see the leitmotif of his work that way. "I don't think that I am obsessed with suburbia. But I definitely feel drawn to family dynamics and dynamics between parents and children and men and women. And that, you know, I find very fascinating and very fulfilling. And I don't have any axes to grind; I'm not on a crusade . . ." No unhappy traumas growing up to recycle, he says, though he notes he had a "complicated childhood" as the only son of divorced parents. In fact, he explains himself as "definitely obsessed by characters who are lost and are trying to find their way through life. Now to answer the obvious question: Are you a character who has lost his way? Well, maybe I am!"

Doesn't shy away

This said, Mendes does not appear lost artistically. Films about family have tended to migrate away from the big screen recently, but perhaps it's Mendes' gift to make ordinary, relatable life events feel big, even operatic, the way they feel to the people who must experience them. And he's deeply interested in love. "He's very romantic. He has a romantic way of looking around the world," says producer Scott Rudin, who has done a number of plays with Mendes as well as "Revolutionary Road." "The moment-to-moment detailed calibration of an emotional reality is what Sam does brilliantly."

"Revolutionary Road" certainly sears the mind -- it's like a post-traumatic-stress-disorder flashback for those who've experienced the troughs of married life, made all the more poignant by the real sensation that the young Wheelers of the film are actually groping to stay together, not fly apart. "In the middle of it is this ache, this longing to make it work," says Mendes. "This is a movie about people wanting to stay together and not being able to."

Based on the cherished 1961 novel by Richard Yates, the film is set in the era of the man in the gray-flannel suit, with the little wife who stays in the suburbs tending the 2.5 blond progeny, but it's not simply about cool retro cars, martinis at lunch and retrograde gender relations. The film turns around the suggestion -- by an increasingly disconsolate April Wheeler, played by Winslet -- that they chuck these stifling lives and move to Paris, a plan that at first makes her husband, Frank (DiCaprio), fall in love with her again but eventually grows to scare him.

"I would argue that she is one of the great feminist heroines," says Mendes. "She's the only person in the movie that is big enough to face the truth. You know well this is not a movie about a woman who wants to go to Paris. It's a movie about a woman who wants her life back and can still remember the dreams she once had and is finally wakening up, which a lot of people do in their 30s and 40s, who go, 'How did I get here? This is not what I wanted. But I never made the decision, this all happened in increments -- I had a child and I had to compromise and I had to do this and that and suddenly I've lost my way. Now I'm just like everyone else and I thought I was special.' "

It was Winslet, Mendes' wife of five years, who first brought him "Revolutionary Road." This is the first time they've worked together, and Mendes says he was surprised by his wife's ferocious work ethic (which included retreating to her trailer), but perhaps less so by her need sometimes to be free of her husband's gaze. "I was very aware that my presence when she is playing one half of a marriage was going to make her feel self-conscious, so I would often go hide around a corner, you know? And then watch her on one of the monitor screens," says Mendes. On occasion, he'd tried to stand by the camera; with his roots in theater, he likes to get up close, but Winslet would say, "You can't stand there." He laughs. "She would say, 'You are breathing down my neck.' "

Sometimes he didn't even recognize Winslet when he actually saw her on screen. "Her face behaved differently than how it does at home," he says. "There was no aging, no big makeover, but it wasn't Kate. It was somebody else. But it's a very subtle form of possession that she has."

It's the alchemy of Yates' novel and the movie that the audience's empathy constantly switches back and forth between Frank and April, so much so that the film's finale is certain to provoke a few battles of the sexes on the way to the parking lot. DiCaprio, who gives one of his most nuanced performances since "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," says he didn't feel like the odd man out.

"It was a family-run movie," says DiCaprio, who has remained friends with Winslet since their "Titanic" days. "I felt like they had a great trust level. Kate and I had a great trust level. It lent itself to Sam and I having a trust level. It's invaluable when you're able to be completely honest with each other about the material." Mendes not only put them through theater-like rehearsals, but also shot the movie sequentially, so they could follow their characters' journey from angry ennui to giddiness and back to despair.

"When you're able to live someone's life out like that, a lot of things become second nature. You're able to understand your character on a much more intimate level." Mendes also provokes and "asks his actors penetrating questions. A lot of time, he wasn't imposing his belief about what you're doing. He put you completely in control of your character," says DiCaprio, but "he would come up, sometimes at very jarring moments, and ask, 'What are you really thinking?' "

In an hour with Sam Mendes, it's clear the man has a gift for a kind of feminine intimacy. He's adept at learning others' secrets, all the while not giving up his own. It's like being whirled by a masterful dance partner.

"Sam comes at everything with an indomitable attitude," says DreamWorks Co-Chairman Stacey Snider, who made both "Jarhead" and "Revolutionary Road" with Mendes. "That doesn't mean if you ask a question or shake the trees a little bit he won't go back and think how to respond, but he's not neurotic. He's calm, confident, able, and he makes you feel great to be following him." Snider says she's "tried to woo, entice, persuade, cajole him to do a lot of material, but he passes on so much. When he fixes on something, it's with unwavering commitment. He held on to ['Revolutionary Road'] for a couple of years."

Newfound inspiration

Mendes says "Revolutionary Road" re-inspired him, after a period of distraction that set in after he left running the Donmar Warehouse theater. Often termed the Orson Welles of England, Mendes started directing professional theater at the age of 23 and was a mere 27 when he took over the Donmar and turned it into a major theatrical incubator, launching well-received productions of "Cabaret" and "The Blue Room," which traveled to Broadway. He left in 2002, right after his second movie, the period gangster drama "Road to Perdition."

"I felt a bit stale," says Mendes. "Which is weird because I was in my mid-30s, but I just felt like I had run out of ideas." He was also enjoying staying at home with his family, which includes Winslet, his stepdaughter Mia, now 8, and their son Joseph, 4.

The family has been living in New York recently, and Mendes and Winslet try to ensure that one or the other can be with the kids. "We usually stagger it so there is always one of us to put them to bed and take them to school. We like to have our hands on them; we don't have a live-in nanny or anything like that. You know, it is our kids." Mendes can certainly talk the parental talk -- about his son's passions for Pokemon, or mimicking how the two kids jostle for turns on the computer. He calls Joe his best friend, and it's clear the children have affected his world view.

In making "American Beauty," he entered that world through the disaffected teenagers. With "Revolutionary Road," he saw the drama through a parent's eyes, though that world view is certainly not his. He most identifies with his new film, about a pregnant couple (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) who, unlike the Wheelers, leave where they are and "embark on a road trip to find the perfect place to give birth, which they ultimately find."

"I'm an optimist. I don't find myself depressive, and I'm more of a regenerative. I kind of cancel and continue. I do not dwell on the past. This is just my nature and it's Kate's too. I tend to be happy whatever surroundings I'm given."

That seems like willed optimism, a choice, because Mendes clearly understands the potency of a piece like "Revolutionary Road," which depicts both the savagery of love and its potential to raise us out of our humdrum existences. They're two sides of the same coin.

"Only someone who truly knows you can pin you and enter secret rooms you know. And that's when things get really nasty, things go beyond words, you know?" says Mendes. "It's a wonderful thing to be known, but it's also very dangerous. Wouldn't you say?"

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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