Revolutionary Road is a bit familiar: a married couple lives in suburban hellscape, and watches with detached horror as their hopes and ambitions are slowly butchered. And it's not just that this is a played-out theme: it's not even the first of director Sam Mendes's films on the idea. It was just nine years ago that he covered almost exactly the same ground in his movie debut, American Beauty. The difference being, that film was generally comic, where this film is altogether serious. Also, it takes place in the 1950s.

Still, there are worse things than familiarity (Ozu made some 50 variations on one plot, after all), and even though we could reasonably wonder if there had to be yet another one of these damned suburban satires, at least Revolutionary Road is a pretty good entry in the field. It's centered around a brace of really marvelous performances, for a start, and of course any film directed by Sam Mendes - shot by Roger Deakins, no less - is going to look absolutely glorious. Then there's the small matter of the script, adapted by somebody named Justin Haythe from the terrifically well-regarded Richard Yates novel that I haven't read myself, and boy oh boy, it doesn't do much to shake my longstanding feeling that Mendes consciously seeks out wimpy screenplays, all the better to show off how fabulously he can frame a shot without the audience getting distracted by annoyances like plot and character.

All right, that was totally an unfair cheap shot. Revolutionary Road has a perfectly good plot with fine characters. It's the story of the Wheelers, April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), who met at a party and impressed each other with their aggressively bohemian perspectives on the Meaning of Life, and pledged to always pursue that which is true and beautiful, and managed anyway to get themselves trapped in gross little roles - Frank is a mid-level executive in the marketing department of a monolithic company, April is a housewife - and locked in a perfect little house with a perfect little yard in a subdivision where all the streets have themed names like Independence Drive and Revolutionary Road. Comes a day when April has finally decided that enough is well and truly enough, and she hatches a plan for her, Frank and their children to move to Paris, where Frank spent the best days of his life, to try and regain something like meaning before it's too late. As this is an awards-bait film & must therefore be completely serious and unhumorous, this plan ends up causing more strife than good between the Wheelers - but that is for the movie and not I to describe.

There's something about the story, I can't quite put my finger on it exactly, that works amazingly well. Perhaps it's that Frank and April very nearly save themselves before the midpoint, giving us a solid twenty minutes where the film is actually happy, and thus the screaming and nastiness that inevitably follow have an added bite. There is also something about the screenplay that works amazingly poorly - so poorly that without DiCaprio and Winslet, and Mendes and Deakins, the movie would be wretched instead of pretty good. I refer to the dialogue, which as anyone can tell who saw the trailer is utterly, damningly straightforward: people saying what is going on and what it means in easy, small words, suggesting that the characters themselves know that they're in a domestic drama and want to prove it by verbally identifying what point in the story arc they've reached. I know that sometimes I get a little too enraged against unsubtle storytelling, but there's unsubtle and then there's "come, let me tell you exactly what the film is about so that you don't actually need to think whatsoever." I don't like those kinds of movies.

But aside from that, it's a swell little flick. Winslet and DiCaprio have both portrayed more complex, original characters, but they still commit to their roles, and so even though the Wheelers have the musty scent of stereotype about them, they still feel more like real people than movie people - among the most realistic, sympethetic figures in the year's cinema, in fact. They're surrounded by a game cast, most notably Kathy Bates as the local aging neighbor lady/real estate agent who forces herself into situations where she oughtn't, and Michael Shannon as her crazy son who, like all crazy people in movies about how awful normal life is, actually comes across as more intelligent and correct than anybody else: in fact, by telling Frank and April to shut the fuck up about their incredibly typical fears about conformity and becoming boring, he manages to be the best audience-identification figure in the movie. The only real problem is that Shannon's take on the character, who is easily the third most important in the film, despite his modest screentime, isn't so imaginative. It works, much as all the supporting performances in the film work, but this is the Kate and Leo show, and a much better showcase for their acting talents than their previous onscreen team-up.

And of course, the whole thing is just a treat to look at. Deakins's 2008 isn't nearly up to his 2007 (in both cases, he shot three films that all came out in a chunk during awards season), but he's still one of the best cinematographers in the business, and the way he lights a plume of cigarette smoke - this is the 1950s, so there's a hell of a lot of it - is enough to justify everything wrong in Revolutionary Road. To say nothing of the care with which he re-creates the soft color palette that shrieks "Mid-century Period Piece!" in every frame.

Plus the director himself, whose eye for a compelling visual just keeps developing with every new film - in this case, filming the cubicles that we've all seen in every film about businessmen made in the last 50 years, and finding something fresh to say with them. The repeated motif of men in suits pouring down the stairs, heading to or from their individual doom, is one of the most satisfying images of the year, both for its resonance within the film and just for how gorgeous the way the bodies in motion have been set up in the frame. It's hard to care about cinema's formal elements at all and not be at least a little bit in love with the film, is what I mean to say.

Still, there's a bit of "lipstick on a pig" syndrome here - the script is ass, no matter how lovely the film that springs from it. So all told, Revolutionary Road is a mixed bag - great performances, perfectly made, and it's a tedious grind. At least it's not like every other Oscar hopeful this year, bending over backwards to hide the director's talent in a haze of generic respectability. No, Sam Mendes is very much the MVP of this film, and he doesn't care who knows it; that's not enough to make the film great, but at least it's more successful than a lot of our recent prestige pictures.