Suburban discontent is forever in Revolutionary Road; also short takes on Defiance, Notorious and Last Chance Harvey 

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD The idea of suburbia as soul-crushing conformist prison has been around almost as long as suburbia. As early as Nicholas Ray's pulverizing 1956 drama Bigger Than Life, now back in theaters, experimental drugs turn high-school teacher James Mason into the kind of family man he thinks he's expected to be: a near-fascist, he-man breadwinner who sees himself as both God and Abraham. And yet Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road, published five years after Ray's film but set at roughly the same time, reads like the blueprint for a subsequent half-century of death-of-a-dream inquests—from the shellacked Sixties sterility of Mad Men to the suburban-confidential despair of The Ice Storm and American Beauty. The dying dream is freedom; its tombstone, in Yates' novel, is a pretty house on a street named for the founding of America and its limitless promise, where Frank and April Wheeler exchange all that for office jobs, furtive trysts and marital misery.

The movie version, directed by American Beauty's Sam Mendes from Justin Haythe's adaptation, stays so faithful to Yates' merciless update of Madame Bovary that it lacks much life of its own. Like the novel, it amounts to a cruelly clear-eyed portrait of two deluded mediocrities—Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), who plays at being a slumming intellectual, and April (Kate Winslet), who harbors ambitions of acting and escaping to Paris. Reteaming Titanic's eternal lovebirds as caged canaries is a letdown right in line with Yates' ironically diminishing returns, and DiCaprio (who uncannily suggests Kurt Russell) and Winslet give theater-scaled performances playing characters who can't do anything but act—a gambit that's more impressive in retrospect than it is to watch in the moment. (Anyone who's ever lived in a duplex with feuding neighbors will spend the movie's running time in hell.)

The actors who make the biggest impression turn Yates' literary devices and scalpel-sharp turns of phrase into wayward flesh—like the gifted Michael Shannon, who bursts the straitjacket of his symbolic-misfit role, or Zoe Kazan, who enacts Yates' description of a mousy secretary's post-coital awkwardness so exactly she imprints herself on it. Apart from them, the MVP is ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, who eschews the high-gloss Douglas Sirk-derived look that's become the default setting for the '50s on film. The movie's light is warm and natural, not sickly and oppressive—but it still leaves Frank and April Wheeler no place to hide. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday at Green Hills)

LAST CHANCE HARVEY Can a sweethearts' duet as unambitious and overtly sentimental as Last Chance Harvey be simply too nice to get beaten up, at least by anyone except the coldest of bastards? Perhaps it helps if you're in the third act of your life, just as neurotic White Plains schlub Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) is in the film's first: long-divorced, facing forced retirement by a younger generation of commercial jingle writers, and on his way to London to see his daughter get married (and be given away by her stepdad). If it couldn't be gleaned from their intercut lives of loneliness, Harvey's soulmate-to-be on the other side of the pond is Kate (Emma Thompson), a Heathrow survey-giver with a disarming wit to shield her from every relationship's inevitable rejection. Place your bets on whether the crude, embarrassing American and the British momma's girl will smilingly spar, then bond over their shared broken dreams; hooray, everybody's rich! Besides being old pros who could elevate such schmaltz in their sleep, Hoffman and Thompson—despite the 20-plus years between them, and her graceful restraint in contrast to his creepy assertiveness—have a genuinely sweet chemistry, which is the exact and only reason to seek this one out. Clearly, it's not for anything writer-director Joel Hopkins (Jump Tomorrow) has wrought. —Aaron Hillis (Opens Friday)

NOTORIOUS This biopic of the Notorious B.I.G. may be regrettably B.L.A.N.D., but Jamal Woolard, known as rapper Gravy, does a credible impersonation of the late Christopher Wallace. It helps that he's a first-time actor: unlike Derek Luke as Puff Daddy or Anthony Mackie as Tupac Shakur, Woolard offers more than just another famous face playing Hollywood Halloween dress-up. He's imposing but also gentle, a bastard but also an angel, and he renders the young Chris Wallace's dreams almost tangible. But director George Tillman Jr., who makes square and reliable biopics every decade or so, doesn't have time to dwell on the nobody Chris—that kid's too small-fry for the big-time Biggie story for which the audience has paid its hard-earned. Tillman fast-forwards instead to the glossy, glamorous life—the fuck-you photo-ops with Tupac; the change-the-world meetings with Puff Daddy; the steamy trysts with Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith); and the nasty run-ins with Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold). The movie turns into a parade of bold-faced names—a hip-hop, stunt-cast episode of Entourage, but with a decidedly tragic ending. Notorious doesn't wash away Biggie's sins, but it absolves him of them too easily; as every deed's done, it's explained away by the ghost of Biggie spouting hindsight wisdom. Such is the restraint to be expected from the authorized biography—Notorious, after all, was produced by Biggie's mom and executive produced by Combs, who do just enough to burnish the legend without tarnishing it. —Robert Wilonsky (Opens Friday)

DEFIANCE In the darkest days of World War II, a Russian commander looks at the ragged Jewish partisans in front of him and chortles that Jews don't fight. Shoots back partisan leader Liev Schreiber: "These Jews do." Here beginneth the lesson, as director/co-writer Edward Zwick turns a footnote from the volumes of Holocaust history—how the brothers Bielski embedded themselves and other Jewish refugees in the forests of Belarus and proceeded to kick Nazi ass—into a corny yet undeniably rousing exercise in counter-mythmaking, released with queasy-making coincidence just as violence in Gaza escalates. To rebut all those gloomy dramas of barely contested Jewish extermination, Zwick casts f'in 007 himself, Daniel Craig, as the cold-eyed dealer of retribution who starts with the collaborators who fingered his family, then helps fortify his starving charges into crack resistance units. Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell plays the slight but scrappy youngest brother; Schreiber, as a brawny peasant turned remorseless commando, steals the movie just by reveling in the premise's grudge-match heroics.

The movie isn't an ice-bath in situational ethics like Jean-Pierre Melville's great Resistance drama Army of Shadows: Zwick hits the point of every scene too squarely on the nose to permit ambiguity or reflection, even when the partisans are arguing their ideals. But it's preferable in its action-yarn simplicity to the bogus moral "complexity" of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Reader—movies whose main objective is to let the audience congratulate itself for not being Nazis. (It makes sense that the Third Reich would resurface as villains while the nation attempts to reset its moral compass, as if we need reassurance that the bar for evil remains distant and high.) If this doesn't sate your bloodlust for the sort of clear-cut good-guys-vs.-bad-guys payback only a Nazi ass-whuppin' can provide, fear not: Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards will soon wage megaton war on whatever survives of the notion of Jewish passivity. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday)

HOTEL FOR DOGS Kids, pooches, childless couples, hotels past their prime, gifted actors in demeaning roles—who doesn't need saving from themselves and others in this slobbery wet kiss of a family movie, whose premise appears to have been slapped together on the back of a napkin, then pitched to a roomful of exhausted executives banging out the January release slate? One winces for Lisa Kudrow, poured into a tight miniskirt as an aspiring rock star and wicked foster parent to two cute orphaned siblings (Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin), and no less for Don Cheadle as the kindly Child Protection officer who toils to find them a loving family. Collecting strays as they go, the children install themselves and a herd of good-looking dogs in a formerly grand downtown hotel and set up a utopian alternative to the pound and the orphanage. Novice director Thor Freudenthal has worked as a storyboard artist, and it shows in the movie's lone imaginative diversion—the gizmos set up by a lonely child to entertain the hounds so they won’t bark up the authorities. In the department of small mercies, the dogs don’t talk, but the human dialogue is as stale as the characters bathing in love-the-family-you’re-with pathos. —Ella Taylor (Opens Friday)


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