The film was adapted from a 1961 novel by Richard Yates and, it has been implied, carries some autobiographical content. In the Winter 1972 issue of Ploughshares, Yates described in detail the title's meaning:
“I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witch hunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties."
It's a portrait of a particular kind of American marriage. The Wheelers see themselves as special - are they? Others say they are too. I'm not sure - I feel as if an important element of April and Frank's back story is missing here. As charming as both actors are (and good looking) I failed to sense their "specialness". They quickly become disillusioned by the suburban life they lead: a boring, stultifying white collar job in Manhattan for him; a stay at home mom existence for her despite failed acting ambitions. Each is deeply unhappy in their own way. He has affairs. She plots endlessly to escape suburbia.
At last she hits on a sort of escape plan that everyone around them thinks is foolish and a little mad: they will live in Paris. She will work as a secretary and support Frank so that Frank can determine what he wants to do with his life artistically - what is Frank's talent I wondered, I saw no evidence of it. She convinces Frank and they tell all of their friends about their plan.
Fate (or a lack of contraception) conspires to foil their plans. April becomes pregnant after a giddy night of celebrating but does not tell Frank until she is ten weeks pregnant and her options narrow regarding keeping the baby. Already he is having reservations about the life changing move as he has caught the eye of his superiors at work who offer a better job and much more money if he abandons his plans to move to France.
Representing a sort of wise fool in the film, John Givings (Michael Shannon) the son of friend, who has been institutionalized for his mental illness and is given to bluntly honest and inappropriate remarks, recognizes the truly brave thing they are trying to do but harshly castigates them when the plan falls apart, blaming the failed scheme on Frank's weakness and fear of change.
I knew nothing of this film so was a bit shocked by the ending. However, it was a very brave novel to have written at the time, at the end of an era of 50s conformity and the unraveling of the myth of always happy suburban families.