Life lessons in ambition : Revolutionary Road and Marley and Me

A little late in the day, but managed to catch both Revolutionary Road and Marley and Me the last week. Both are realistic movies about life. While one deals with ambition and the discontent it causes, the other talks of readjusting goals according to the reality.

The couple in Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler would remind you of how you were in your teens and early twenties. Its about having this feeling that life suddenly happened to you and that you are not living to your full potential. True as that may be, Revolutionary Road talks about the incendiary nature of unfulfilled dreams and delusions of potential. At one point in the movie April says : “If being crazy means living life as if it matters, then I don’t care if I am completely insane.” But the same April, when confronted with the reality of life, says, “For years I thought we’ve shared this secret that we would be wonderful in the world. I don’t know exactly how, but just the possibility kept me hoping. How pathetic is that? So stupid. To put all your hopes in a promise that was never made. Frank knows what he wants, he found his place, he’s just fine. Married, two kids, it should be enough. It is for him. And he’s right; we were never special or destined for anything at all.” Perhaps the premise of the movie is best explained by the dialogue by a certified insane neighbour of the Wheelers who says about their view of suburban life “Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness…”

The Wheelers are torn by their own ambitions and April especially finds it difficult that life is generally not what its cooked up to be. It is not all about achieving your potential and the dreams, but about drab details like bills, cooking and kids. She sums up the general angst faced by young couples best when she says that they have been punishing each other for their unfulfilled dreams that they believe were interrupted by the kids – an attitude that leads her to try the tragic try-at-home abortion of their child. Frank on the other hand, wants to make it big, but it is not for the sake of ambition, its more because he equates big with the good life, more respect, better standing in the society.

The Wheelers are not liked in the neighbourhood much, they are admired for their odd ball thoughts, but not liked, because looking at the Wheelers reminds the neighbours of the drabness of their existence. It is like the Wheelers show them a mirror and mock them with their plans of quitting it all and moving to Paris. The neighbours want to be like the Wheelers, but at the same time think the Wheelers are delusional. The Wheelers however are just you and me, with an exaggerated sense of dissatisfaction, people who believe life should matter and that there should be a reason for everything. But perhaps life isnt that logical. At one point, April screams in frustration, “Who made these rules anyways?” But it is more about their inability to make their own rules, rather than about following the herd. Reviewer Mick LaSalle talks about the brilliant use of extra marital sex in the movie. To quote him, “As is so often the case in life, it’s the only creative outlet left to people who have given up hope. It’s an expression of deep despair.” With the Wheelers this is true.

While the Wheelers end up as a dysfunctional, confused couple who feel betrayed by life, the Grogans in Marley and Me come across as the few who have made peace with life. Like the Wheelers there is a time in the life of the Grogans when the stress of handling daily family details, takes its toll on the marriage. Jenny hates the fact that she has had to quit her job and play suburban wife while her equally talented husband is still earning. She is edgy, depressed and picks up fights and John Grogan doesn’t quite know how to salvage the situation. But the Grogans are more real, they have no illusions of being ‘special’. The mature way in which the Grogans talk their problems out and the way they discuss everything together in the movie, is in complete contrast to the Wheelers, who heap their own inefficiencies on to the other. While Jenny slowly comes to accept her new responsibilities, April openly loathes the constraints of family and kids and Frank claims to be special but has no clue in what. The mutual frustration of the couple and the way they punish each other for their problems leads a neighbour to say that he is glad he wont be the Wheelers’ child.

John Grogan too has had to let go of his dream of being an investigative reporter and has to instead be a columnist to run the house, but he makes peace with this change in life. John is shown to sometimes yearn for and maybe even secretly grudge the life of his single friend, a fellow journalist, who can travel to exotic locations, write great stories, flirt around to his heart’s content. John however does get a chance to see for himself if the grass is greener on the other side. Like it often happens in life, much after he has forgotten about his reporting career he gets an opportunity at a different city. The Grogans make the big move but John discovers that he truly is a better columnist than a reporter and all the angst is suddenly gone, however by now, John is also around 40 and has learnt to make peace with life as it is. A significant moment that shows his change of attitude is when he meets the same high flying friend again after years and sees that while his friend is still the single flirt, still asking out girls on the road, looking for the One girl who would be right, Grogan himself has a fulfilled life. Like they say, in the end, it all works out and Grogan’s is a true story. Frank on the other hand, remains clueless about what he wants till the end. His desire for something more is born more out of the need to appear special, than really be special, whereas April wants to achieve being special at any cost. It is this fundamental difference that plays itself out leading April to view Frank as man of all fluff and no substance while he views her as unrealistic.

While both these movies might never be mentioned in the same breath by cinema purists, what I find to be a learning experience in both of them is how your attitude to ambition can make or break your own life. The Wheelers are forever looking for that extra something and in the process hating every minute of the present. The Grogans on the other hand make adjustments based on the circumstances and because they make those adjustments, life gives them an opportunity later on to even try what they perceived as great once.

A lot of people in their twenties like me are still struggling with that fine balance of what is ambition and what could end up as delusion. Just out of college, we have our ideas of what the world should be like, how we would contribute to it and what we want to do in it. But life is hardly perfect and probably even life, if it were an entity, doesn’t know what the next moment is going to be like. When our ideas of what life ought to be like, clash with reality, most of us have those ‘Is there any point?’ moments. But what I am slowly learning to accept is that perhaps life wasn’t meant to be this star studded event of cosmic brilliance, life was meant to be about days that turned into months and years. If life really were supposed to be one adrenaline rush, maybe there wouldn’t be so much routine in nature. Maybe because life is also about routine and ordinary stability just like the mighty sun rises everyday in the same way. If it were meant to be different each day, maybe the sun would rise differently each day too, maybe it would end up shuttling between Mercury and Pluto whenever it pleases. I do not mean to say that one shouldn’t aspire to be more, do more, but one should also accept that sometimes life is not all its cracked up to be. Maybe there really isn’t much beyond the horizon, or maybe there is and like John Grogan found out, you are better off with what you have.
Its ok to go slow in life, its ok to be ordinary, because like someone said any idiot can handle a crisis, it’s handling the daily living that is tough. Or like Frank Wheeler himself puts it. “Knowing what you’ve got, knowing what you need, knowing what you can do without – That’s inventory control.” Knowing it all surely isn’t life. Maybe its wise to stop asking, “Is there a point?” when the question has remained unanswered throughout recorded history Life really isn’t perfect and not all of it is in our control, the key is to change what we own and leave the rest to sort itself out, a lesson that I hope to fully assimilate someday.