Director's latest feature spotlights Leo and Kate

SAM MENDES’ film work is a distinct, not an acquired taste. You either love it or loath it. Try being middle-of-the-road on “American Beauty” or “Road to Perdition,” or even “Jarhead.” It doesn’t play.

Mendes is not giving us a break with his latest, “Revolutionary Road,” starring his wife, Kate Winslet, and Kate’s former “Titanic” co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio. They immerse themselves so completely in their current roles that the memory of their star-making shipboard romance doesn’t even register. This time out the boat is their marriage, the iceberg is reality.

“Revolutionary Road,” is based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates. I don’t know the book, but the movie is… unrelenting, intense, downbeat. Not only is it curious fare for a holiday-time release, it is a movie that should come with a warning sticker: “Caution! Relationships at Risk. Proceed With Care!” The film is set in 1950s suburbia and it is all about lack of choice, crushed hope, waking up from infatuation and false idealization. We’ve already seen quite a number of films like this. Winslet herself traveled a similar road in “Little Children” — contemporary suburban angst. And Mendes put a capper on neurotic dissatisfaction with his equally depressing “American Beauty.”

So at first glance, and even second, one might ask “Why this movie, this subject, now in 2008?” Is there anything more to say, especially in a period piece, especially as so many of the issues are dealt with in hypnotically entertaining fashion via TV’s “Mad Men” and its early 1960s world of endless cigarettes, five martini lunches and stifled women? (Drinks and cigs get endless play in “RR” too.)

I’d have to ask Mr. Mendes for the answer to “why?” But we can assess what this film does provide: A. a pyrotechnic display of his wife’s abilities. B. a pyrotechnic display of Mr. DiCaprio’s abilities.

There’s a lot of “acting” going on, including a truly sensational turn from Michael Shannon as a deranged acquaintance who pops in and out of Kate and Leo’s home as a kind of one-person Greek chorus; or perhaps a male version of Cassandra always seeing the gloomy future, always to naught?

Kathy Bates as the fluttery real estate broker, Kathryn Hahn and David Barber as Kate and Leo’s neighbors, are also splendid. So if you are looking for a movie that clobbers you with actors at their best, “Revolutionary Road” delivers. Some may prefer Miss Winslet’s equally fine but less showy performance in “The Reader” but Kate’s A-to-Z gamut in “RR” is the kind of stuff Academy members love.

The “hook” is Winslet’s character. She is so desperate, disappointed, filled alternately with hopeless hope turned to rage, that you can’t help being pulled in.

The commitment of the actors is so intense that it transcends manipulation and predictability — I can’t say there was one real surprise. Perhaps there wasn’t supposed to be.

DiCaprio matches Winslet mood for mood, rage for rage. Indeed, his explosions are even more terrifyingly realistic than Kate’s. Leo was never a convincing heartthrob, always a genuine actor; a character actor, really. He certainly is allowing himself to mature physically onscreen. There’s no vanity in how he presents himself.

How powerful a pull does this movie have for women? Last week, Gloria Steinem hosted a special screening, packed with women, a few men scattered about. During the two hours plus as the movie progressed, no sound was uttered, not a breath taken. To say it held this audience would be classic understatement. Afterward, there was “high tea” and a chance to discuss the film. “Tea?” said one wrung-out lady, “I need straight Scotch!”

Ms. Steinem, wafer-slim, stood and encouraged the crowd to share. And they did. There was very little levity — no lively showbiz chat — and every man had fled. “I’m the only guy here,” said one good-natured fellow who wanted stick around. “Yes, you are,” came the ominous observation. He left.

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VERY THANKFUL am I to see that the Oscarcast will turn back to a real actor as host this year. Hugh Jackman is one of the nicest, most regular guys in the business. Charm, grace, sincerity and sex appeal. And maybe this time, not a lot of those “inside baseball” type jokes that leave the audience bewildered. (Remember, Hugh won the Emmy for hosting Broadway’s Tony Awards.)

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SAMUEL L. JACKSON is one of those movie he-men; if you ever stood next to him or shook his hand you know you are in “the presence.” Well, now Scarlett Johansson, who co-starred with Samuel in a movie called “The Spirit,” is telling one and all that he wore more make-up then she did before the camera. “Sam was always using my eyeliner pencils. He always had a lot of make-up on. He would spend hours longer in the make-up room than me.

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