Frank and April Wheeler meet at a party, fall in love and -- since it's the 1950s -- get married right away. She hopes to be an actress while he works for a large, dehumanizing company. When they move to a house in the suburbs, DiCaprio becomes another faceless commuter in a sea of Magritte-like hat wearers taking the train to their cubicles in the city As her acting dreams fall apart, he moves ahead in business.
Still, both are bored with the predictable nature of their day-to-day existence while feeling somehow superior to their suburbanite circle of friends and neighbors. Aimless trysts and never-ending tiffs punctuate their ever-more meaningless marriage until April hatches a plan to go to Paris where Frank can discover his true potential (which is as unclear to Frank as it is to the audience.)
Director Sam Mendes -- who won the Oscar for American Beauty and will be represented onstage again next month by his production of The Cherry Orchard at BAM -- gets fine performances from his cast, including his wife. Winslet's April is very much a product of her pre-feminist upbringing and she's probably bi-polar as well. Just watch her act badly in a community theater show and then manically extol the virtues of a life abroad a la The Fitzgeralds. DiCaprio displays yet another aspect of his constantly maturing talent as the baby-faced Frank, caught in an adult world he neither made nor understands, but from which he greatly benefits.
There are a slew of great supporting performances from theater-based talent: Michael Shannon plays crazy as Kathy Bates' certifiable son just home from the loony bin; Zoe Kazan is the misused other woman in Frank's life; David Harbour is the Wheeler's hapless neighbor who gets lucky with April, and Jay O. Sanders and Dylan Baker play Frank's boss and a crony respectively. Plus, the final screen image of stage veteran Richard Easton will not soon be forgotten either.
Despite the fine performances and evocative imagery provided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, this era of constant smoking and martini swilling seems all too familiar (especially to viewers of AMC's hit series Mad Men), and the tale is ultimately too depressing to be effective holiday fare.
One of the hardest tickets to get during the summer of 2006 was a free one to see Meryl Streep stomping around in army boots in the title role of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children on Central Park's Delacorte stage. Now thanks to Theater of War, John Walter's new documentary opening this week for a limited run at New York City's Film Forum, there's a chance to not only see several scenes from that incredible performance, but to catch a backstage peek at Streep's process.
Among the film's myriad other talking heads are Tony Kushner, who re-translated the play, director George C. Wolfe, composer Jeanine Tesori, and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, whom we glimpse as he rides his bike back and forth from his Brooklyn home to the theater.
Besides the footage from the Central Park production -- which includes a fabulous monologue/song from co-star Kevin Kline -- the film also features snippets of black and white film and stills from the original 1949 Berliner Ensemble production starring Brecht's wife and leading lady, Helene Weigel.
If showing this was all that Walter tried to do, most theater buffs would have been eternally grateful. Instead, this 95-minute movie careens maddeningly back and forth between Brecht's life and politics, as well as his theater, meandering into discussions of the Marxist dialectic, while offering personal and production insights from Brecht's onetime assistant, Carl Weber and his daughter, Barbara. In the long run -- and the movie feels much longer than its running time -- this scattershot approach encourages several periods of blah-blah-blah in between the glorious bits and pieces about the actual productions of Mother Courage.