The 1950s. Everybody smoked, everywhere, except maybe in elevators. Everybody drank too much. Men wore hats, and women wore high heels and bras that reminded you of ICBM nose cones. It was the era of conformity, of hordes of men in gray flannel suits, of Levittown, the ad biz, and the pointless rat race, the soul-killing pursuit of the dollar and the corner office. It was an era of unparalleled prosperity, but with nuclear warfare hanging over everything. In only a few years the beatniks would start to question some basic assumptions, and soon after that there would be the tidal wave of hippies to perplex and anger the WWII generation, but for a while there people just kept soldiering on, driving their insanely huge cars, barbecuing in the back yard, raising 3.2 kids. It was the era I grew up in, and I remember some of it.
The book this was based on was published in 1961, which was still very much the ‘50s, and it caused quite a stir. People asked, were our lives really that empty? Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are together again in a situation that is, in some ways, a lot more frightening than the Titanic sinking. (And I have to say that based on that movie, eleven years ago, who would have thought they would mature into people capable of such stunning performances as we see here? Not me.) They live in suburbia, but see themselves as a bit above it. Kate is particularly restless, and convinces Leo to quit his job and move to Paris. Live life! Carpe diem! Go for the gusto! Just do it! Only she gets pregnant with their third child, and he gets cold feet … that’s enough plot. I will say that it is thoroughly depressing, but I knew that going in. It’s not a film I would ever want to see again, but I’m glad I saw it.
The real standout, even with the performances of the two stars, is Michael Shannon as the crazy son of a friend of the couple. Only you realize pretty soon that he’s not really crazy, he just can’t stop himself from telling the truth. He’s the only one that really sees what’s going on, both with Leo and Kate, and in the larger world. He’s a hippie ahead of his time, and that is very, very sad. What does he get for his insights? Electroshock “therapy,” so intense he loses his ability to do math, which he was good at. He only has a few brief scenes, but he steals the whole movie, and for once the Academy has seen fit to nominate a true supporting actor in the category that has frequently become a venue for big names in roles far too large to be called supporting.