Away We GoReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/12/09 00:00:00
(Worth A Look)
Faithful readers will have noticed over time that I have not exactly been a fan of the directorial output of Sam Mendes, the man behind “American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead” and “Revolutionary Road.” It isn’t that I have some deep-seated vendetta against the guy for marrying Kate Winslet or think he is a talent-free hack--I concede that the guy has impeccable taste in material and collaborators, a keen visual eye and an unusual facility for getting top-notch work from his actors. The trouble is that with each of those films, Mendes has clearly set out to make the Great American Film and while such artistic ambition is a rarity these days, the strain to be Great is so great that it eventually winds up subsuming everything else. The results haven’t been so much movies as they are coldly antiseptic dioramas that look beautiful and relate a story but fail to suggest anything resembling genuine human behavior or emotion. Blessedly, his latest work, the quirky road movie “Away We Go,” lacks that overwhelming sense of pretension and self-satisfaction and is all the better for it. Instead of trying to make a Great Movie, he has simply set out to tell a story in a simple and direct manner and the result is a film that contains all of the virtues of his previous efforts and none of the strain. While it may not be the knockout masterpiece that some are claiming, it is both the first genuinely good film that Mendes has done to date and one of the more delightful and disarming movies to emerge during this summer season.The film stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a semi-hipster couple who are living a fairly ramshackle existence in a rural Colorado town while awaiting the birth of their first child in a little more than three months. Their lives are unexpectedly thrown into flux when they go to visit his parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) for dinner and learn that not only are they impulsively planning to move to Belgium, they will be doing so a month before the birth of their grandchild. After returning home, Burt and Verona come to the realization that there is nothing really keeping them in Colorado--they only moved there to be close to his parents (hers passed away years earlier), they have no other family or close friends in the area and their jobs are freelance positions that can be done anywhere--and realize that this is the perfect time to make a fresh start for themselves by finding a new place to settle down and begin their own family. Since they don’t necessarily want to start their lives completely on their own, they set off on a cross-country trip (with a brief detour north of the border) to visit various friends and family members to see if one of those areas is to their liking.
Their first stop is Phoenix, where they meet up with Lily (Allison Janney), a former co-worker of Verona’s who has become such a loud, obnoxious and belittling boor that her husband (Jim Gaffigan) has retreated into an alcoholic fog while her two kids are clearly counting down the days until they can finally fly the coop and escape her for good. Next up is a detour to Tucson to see Verona’s sister (Carmen Ejogo)--she is pleasant enough but the heat proves to be far too much for them. From there, they venture off to Wisconsin to see Burt’s childhood friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Women’s Studies professor who smugly lectures them on the superiority of her somewhat unique approach to parenting, a regime in which strollers are forbidden but having sex with her common-law husband (Josh Hamilton) is a beautiful expression of love and togetherness. After that encounter goes south, Burt and Verona go north to Montreal to visit old college friends Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), parents to a large and happy brood of adopted kids, and discover the sad truths lurking just behind the cheerful façade. Finally, they make their way to Miami to see Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider), whose own family is disintegrating before his eyes despite his best efforts, and find themselves forced to finally make some hard decisions about where they are going as people and where they will wind up as a family.
“Away We Go” marks the screenwriting debuts of Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida, the Brangelina of the alt-lit movement, and while it certainly embraces the quirkiness of their prose work, some of their fans may be a little disappointed with the strangely conventional nature of their work. For a film that is at least partly about the unexpected twists and turns in life, everything here is rigidly structured--Burt and Verona each get an insane friend, a perfectly sensible sibling and, with the exception of the Canadian couple, no other friends to apparently speak of--and lacking in surprise. (After dropping one bit of information in a remarkably unsubtle manner early on, there is absolutely no doubt as to where the story is going to wind up.) We also never really get that much of a sense as to who Burt and Verona are beyond the obvious--he is the seemingly laid-back guy who is secretly terrified at the prospect of being responsible for the raising of a child and she is the more pragmatic one who is essentially forced to practice her parenting skills on her partner--what makes them tick or why they seem so isolated from the world. (Luckily, both Krasinski and Rudolph manage to fill in some of the blanks with their lovely and nuanced performances.) The script also veers dangerously into outright caricature at certain point, especially in the segment where they visit Lily and Ellen, two people who come across as so appalling that it is impossible to believe that they could have ever been friends with them. This isn’t to say that the script is bad by any means--there are a number of big laughs throughout and a couple of scenes--such as one in a strip club during the Montreal sojourn and another on a trampoline in the backyard of Burt’s brother--that are uncommonly affecting but anyone expecting transcendent screenwriting based on the twin pedigrees of the authors may be a little surprised with what they get here.
And yet, despite the screenplay deficiencies, “Away We Go” is still a very effective and affecting movie and much of that is due the efforts of Mendes. Unlike his last few films, which were all high-toned adaptations of acclaimed literary properties with big stars and impossibly high expectations, this film is far more modest and unassuming and the lessening of the pressure on Mendes to create a masterpiece seems to have unleashed something in him. Instead of the overly restrained tone that has marked his previous work, he utilizes a looser and more cheerfully shabby approach that may remind some of the films of such long-gone Seventies-era auteurs as Hal Ashby and Michael Ritchie, directors who preferred sly social commentary and thoughtful character studies to following the machinations of a plot. With the exception of the early vignette featuring Allison Janney (which has been done in such a broad manner that all you can really do is ride it out), he does a good job of letting the scenes play in such a way that they never go too far over the line into either mean-spirited humor or mawkish melodrama. Consider the sequence with the Maggie Gyllenhaal character. In lesser hands, such a sequence could have simply devolved into a grotesque pseudo-satire of political correctness gone hideously wrong, but since he knows just how far to push it without taking it to excess, it becomes a scene that works both because it is funny and because it still retains a certain kernel of truth--we have all known someone like the Gyllenhaal character in our lives and the scene not only captures what it is like to endure the allegedly helpful condescension of such a person (thanks in no small part to Gyllenhaal’s hilariously aggravating performance) but also the way that most of us would like to end such an encounter. Then consider the extraordinary scene in the Montreal strip club. Again, a lesser director might have bungled the numerous shifts in tone in this particular sequence but Mendes and his actors handle the moves with such grace and delicacy that it is only in retrospect that we begin to appreciate the difficulty of what they are attempting and how well they have managed to pull it off.
(I, for one, would take this single sequence over “American Beauty” or “Revolutionary Road” entire in a heartbeat.)Because nothing of great significance happens during “Away We Go”--Burt and Verona don’t go on a crime spree or save the world from giant robots or anything like that--there is a possibility that some people may come away from it feeling disappointed that “nothing happens.” (In the business, this is called “Lost in Translation” syndrome.) Of course, what they mean by that is that nothing happens that they haven’t seen a hundred times before and therefore cannot immediately process. Lord knows this film is not perfect by any means but at least its imperfections, for the most part, have a recognizably human element to them that is usually in short supply at this time. I’ll put it this way. If anything I have said in this review about “Away We Go” has intrigued you in any way, you might want to consider giving it a chance. If not, you might as well stay home and save your time and money for something that is more up your alley
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