Do Sam Mendes's Films Attack the State of American Marriage?

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski play a happily unmarried couple in Away We Go
Photo: Focus Features

I was happy to see my article ranking director Sam Mendes's films getting more reads than I thought it would. I wasn't sure how many people would get excited over a director more known for award contending films than big time blockbusters, but a good conversation topic was born out of the comment section worth taking a look at as one of our regular readers, "Chris C," takes a look at three of Mendes's films from a perspective I never quite thought of.

When originally adding his own personal ranking of Mendes's films Chris wrote, "I actually found Away We Go to be an insult disguised as an endearing comedy... but I could be off the mark." An insult? Really? I was intrigued and wanted to know more and thankfully Chris obliged with an explanation that caught me a bit by surprise:

I think that, like in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Mendes is attacking the state of American marriage. When you look at all of the couples that Krasinki and Rudolph visit, the marriage is always screwed up in one way or another. The brother, Allison Janney's family, the seemingly perfect Montreal family, Maggie Gyllenhaal's family -- all married couples, all screwed up in one way or another. And the two leads always leave the married couple with a sour taste, or, a segment never ends with a positive view on marriage. In the end, the unmarried, sort of renegade couple, our two leads, always come out on top -- and they always will, as shown by the ending. By remaining unmarried, they can seemingly conquer anything.

It's not insulting in the typical sense of the word, but I keep reading about how the film is affirming and endearing. I actually found it quite dark, and another way for Mendes to flip off the typical American lifestyle. In a way, I felt cheated by the film, because I would rather have a director tell me his point straight up. And I don't mean spell it out -- I just think that (what I feel) is the point should not be buried under a pretty funny, sweet comedy (seemingly) about accepting the perils of parenthood.

Now, I could be reading way too far into the film. But for my money, the film subtly, slyly manipulates its audience...

For the record, I really enjoyed the performances and thought the script had some very funny moments.

I don't know about you, but I think that's a great evaluation and while I totally agree with Chris on the fact Away We Go is much darker than folks are making it out to be (read my review here), and I always thought American Beauty and Revolutionary Road took their own little jabs at marriage, I never looked at Away We Go in that way. While I was perfectly aware of the supporting characters, I wasn't evaluating their affect in relation to Mendes's prior films, I merely evaluated their affect on the couple in question and the storyline at hand. However, Chris's argument has validity as all of the married couples Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) visit are having troubles of some sort and the one thing Burt and Verona are doing different from all of them is not getting married. Of course, this is at the insistence of Verona as Burt has proposed several times, but nonetheless it's true.

So, it begs the question -- Does Mendes actually have an agenda?

Photo: Focus Features

I looked around the Internet for interviews with Mendes related to Away We Go and did happen upon some quotes that hardly help the discussion, but I'll introduce them anyway. The first comes from Jim Gilchrist's interview at The Scotsman in which Mendes says, "I'm drawn to dark material, but I'm not a pessimistic person. Even though I'm very proud of Revolutionary Road, I'm not a Yatesian by nature [referring to the author of the original book]. I'm not someone who believes men and women are destined to forever be apart and everything will eventually dissolve." That's about as deep as I could find Mendes going when it came to relationships, which means we will primarily have to look at this based on outsider perception alone.

The same interview at the Scotsman references A.O. Scott's review of Away We Go at "The New York Times" saying:

To observe that [Burt and Verona] inhabit no recognizable American social reality is only to say that this is a film by Sam Mendes, a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean. The vague, secondhand ideas about the blight of the suburbs that sloshed around American Beauty and Revolutionary Road are now complemented by an equally incoherent set of notions about the open road, the pioneer spirit, the idealism of youth.

Pretty harsh, but I think it's funny Scott took such issue with the fact it was a youthful road movie in a pursuit for happiness. While it's a bit off topic, when Scott finishes saying, "Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don’t be silly. But don’t be fooled. This movie does not like you," we actually get closer to the point, but we also open up a side of Scott that one day may need to be looked at a little closer.

Contrary to Scott's belief, an interviewer at Dark Horizons tells Mendes he's "a Brit who seems to have his pulse on the American psyche" to which Mendes doesn't necessarily grasp onto, but he does say, "You know, I really don't know. I mean, I'm very drawn to America. I mean, for a start, I've lived here for five years now. So, you know, I live in New York and so part of it is circumstantial. But it's easier for me to make movies about America, because I live in America."

Considering American Beauty was made 10 years ago, living in America for five years doesn't amount to a whole lot. I also wasn't able to find any hard-and-fast quotes asking Mendes about his opinions of American marriages, which, as I said, left me searching down other avenues.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road
Photo: Paramount Vantage

Lee Siegel at the Wall Street Journal wonders "Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs?" in relation to Mendes's Revolutionary Road, but that isn't necessarily on the nose and there are no quotes from the director. However, Siegel does draw the comparison between American Beauty and Revolutionary Road saying the latter is just "a reiteration -- take a sprinkler, add a dollop of anomie, and presto! you're an authentic American filmmaker."

I thought a search for something like "Sam Mendes Hates America" would get me someone all worked up over his films, but all I got was a bunch of comment threads with statements like, "I can’t think of anyone who hates hard working, middle class, tradition loving Americans more than Sam Mendes" and "You respect American Beauty? I walked out of the cinema when the ham-fisted propagandist wasn’t satisfied with simply making the neighbourhood traditionalist (Liberals read: “homo-hater”) unlikable, it had to sledge-hammer the point home by having him collect authentic Nazi memorabilia." Whew, crack open that hornets nest and we'll have a riot on our hands.

There's no doubt Mendes's films have stirred up audiences, but at what point do we take a closer look at screenwriters Alan Ball (American Beauty), Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) and Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida (Away We Go)? Of the bunch only Haythe wasn't born in the United States... So where does that leave us?

Does Sam Mendes have a problem with American marriages? I have no idea, but if he did I can't say he has a losing argument. Every search I did for divorce rates in America show me 50% or more of all marriages end in divorce. Compare that to 11.9 divorces for every 1,000 in England and where do you go from there?

  • sfsxsfg

    He doesn't write the scripts.He chooses scripts.So if you can "blame" anyone is the writer not the director.And obviously coming off the theater Mendes is interested in relationships between human beings.If they are unhappy or not is just a label we put to categorize it.Mendes and the screenwriter dig deeper.There's only choices,and no one can tell us if there are wrong or not.Mendes is interested in that subject.He doesn't make childlike movies.The good,the bad,the happy,the unhappy etc...
    A lot of people can't understand his movies.Don't know why,maybe people with all those superhero flicks have forgotten to understand dramas.I remember watching Revolutionary road,and at the breakfast scene i could hear whispers that April is crazy.I was mad.They couldn't see behind the obvious!So Mendes is for few.That's true.

  • adu

    I dont see it as an attack at all. The U.S. suffers from one the highest, if not highest, divorce rates in the world. So if a few poignant movies focus on the path to self-destruction, I can hardly blame the director for it.

  • Paolo

    @sfsxsfg: Childlike movies? Not totally, but they are a little bit. I always thought that the tie that bind Sam Mendes movies (except for Perdition, which I haven't seen. And yes, that was the worst usage of that expression) is tactless, tactless people. When he collaborated with Alan Ball, who specialized on those characters, put those characters to the nth degree. Many people liked it, but I'm still on the fence with that. I wonder how unsympathetic the characters of Closer would have been if he ended up directing the movie version, after directing the play on Broadway.

    Anyway that's a good picture of Leo andKate. It looks like they're kissing near a waterfall.

  • Chris C

    I wouldn't say he attacks, but rather he rebukes the idealized American suburbia lifestyle. I think something we should look at is his ethnic background. It's quite interesting that while living in Britain, he made American Beauty which many feel captures the underbelly of the suburbs astonishingly well. Given his family's success, I don't think he's actually lived in an American suburb (rather a Manhattan penthouse of some sort)...I don't know where I'm going with that, but its intriguing, given that 3 of his 5 films have dealt with a subject I don't think he's experienced (I could, of course, be dead wrong and if I am, will somebody please correct me).

    @sfsxsfg: I don't know if we need to look at the writers as much as the director. Direction can change the tone of the scripts, and other directorial decisions (such as camerawork) can further change the scripts initial ambience. A good example of this would be the Kaufman-Clooney debacle with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Furthermore, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida are a married couple; I don't think a married couple would rebuke what they themselves have prescribed to...seems rather hypocritical.

  • BR

    Sam Mendes has always been an intriging director to me. I really want to see Away We Go because it looks brilliant, but i remember walking out of American Beauty feeling disgusted. It was almost like I needed to take a shower to get that movie off of me. I know that is a weird statement but i dont know how else to word it. I think its because the film took on several topics that are looked down upon and I didnt know how to react at the time. i almost felt biased towards Mendes after that, but I mustered up the courage and went to see Road to Perdition and he brought me back. But, I think it would be interesting to sit down with Mendes and discuss this topic with him personally and see his outlook on the subject

  • Mimi

    I have been wondering this since I saw American Beauty. And then when he did Rev Road I couldn't help but wonder why this Brit was constantly making movies about the state of the American Marriage. The truth is marriages face the same trials and tribulations and go through the same rhythms around the world but he likes to pick scripts that focus on Americans. I think is based on the simple fact that American films get wider releases and he is the type of man that wants to know everyone (especially in Hollywood) has seen his films. If he made a film about a British couple not as many people would go to see it.

  • Patty

    I just finished watching the movie, and I'm personally grateful that Mendes exposes the dark realities of relationships and marriage. There is so much hiding, so much un-courageous behavior. We have dreams and hopes and visions - every one of us - but are we brave enough to pursue them?