Set in 1955 (and based upon the 1962 Richard Yates novel), the film is 2008's greatest acting showcase. DiCaprio and Winslet (who won a Golden Globe for her performance here) are heartbreaking and frightening as Frank and April Wheeler. When we first see them eyeing each other at a party, it's easy to reminisce about them as Jack and Rose in Titanic. The two look like they belong together.
As it turns out, this is most definitely not the case when it comes to their new characters. When they first meet, April wants to be an actress, while Frank is a longshoreman. They get married, with Frank witnessing April's pitiful performance in an amateurish play. Frank's sad attempt at placating her afterward leads to a bitter roadside fight where the two tear each other apart. They are mortally wounded--and all of this happens before the opening title hits the screen.
They live in a Connecticut suburb in a beautiful house where they are raising two kids. In some ways, they believe the existence is beneath them. April fashioned herself as a bohemian, and she's not adjusting well to being a stay-at-home mom after her failed acting attempts. Frank has moved into a marketing position that is driving him crazy with boredom, so he spices things up by occasionally dipping into the secretarial pool.
Meanwhile, April comes up with a plan for the family to ditch their American life and move to Paris. In France, she will work while Frank gets a chance to discover "what he really wants to do with his life." He warms up to the notion, which gives him a certain kind of aloof confidence at work. Corporate takes notice--and as a result, they want Frank to move up the ladder.
The Paris plan catalyzes a new spark between Frank and April, but that spark starts a destructive fire when Frank starts to have doubts. Further developments make Paris even less attractive to him--and April does not want a change of plans. The resulting onscreen fights are devastating and brutal, the stuff of major tragedy. DiCaprio and Winslet make it all very real.
Michael Shannon captivates in his scenes as John Givings, a mentally troubled houseguest who actually has some of the more sane observations in the film. John is disgusted at what he sees in the world around him; this guy would be loved in the late-'60s, but in the '50s, his views just don't cut it.
Adding to the Titanic-reunion vibe is the presence of Kathy Bates as Helen, John's mother. She's Frank and April's real-estate agent, stopping by unannounced with a big smile on her face while becoming secretly annoyed that they aren't properly maintaining patches in their lawn.
Nobody gets upset onscreen like DiCaprio: When he uncorks, the demonic forces of hell come spewing out of his mouth and eyes. He makes you want to jump into the screen and escort Winslet to safety--but Winslet can bring the pain right back at him. You might actually find yourself worrying about their health when watching this movie; they are that good.