Away We Go (2009): Sam Mendes Directs John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph

Away We Go, the new serio-comic road movie, represents a change of pace for Sam Mendes after directing mostly high-profile, star-driven pictures, such as the 1999 Oscar-winning ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Road to Perdition,’ with Hanks and Newman, and most recently ‘Revolutionary Road.’

Taking the indie roots, with a gifted but no-star cast and ultra-modest production values, Mendes has made another uneven movie that displays his strnegths (getting terrific performances from his casts) weaknesses (finding the emotional center of his narrative and establishing the right tone) as a filmmaker.

Mendes is one of the few British (and other foreign) directors who are attracted to distinctly American topics, specifically explorations of suburban malaise, which may be refreshing if he could bring an interesting perspective to the material at hand. But alas this is not the case of ‘Away We Go,’ a sporadically charming and socially poignant feature, which is more impressive in its writing and acting than helming.

‘Away We Go,’ based on an original script by husband and wife team of novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, centers on a thirtysomething interracial couple, white bread college dropout Burt (John Krasinski) and African-American Verona (Maya Rudolph), who embark on a journey across contemporary America searching for the essence of their lives and a place they can call home.

On one level, ‘Away We Go’ could be seen as updated version of ‘Lost in America,’ Albert Brooks’ sublime comedy starring Julie Haggerty and Brooks as the ultimate yuppie couple. Like that 1985 picture, ‘Away We Go’ aims to be a zeitgeist feature about the foibles and travails of an extremely likable and intelligent couple by exploring the emotional turns and comedic twists and turns of their odyssey.

In the first, funny scene, longtime companions Burt and Verona are having oral sex. When he comments on how ‘fruity’ her vagina tastes, she smacks him. In the next scene, Verona is six-month pregnant, Burt needs to find a job, and both need to establish a home “somewhere” to raise their baby.

The pair naturally turns for help to Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander (the always excellent Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara); Verona’s folks are dead. But over dinner, they are immediately put off and out by the older, wacky Farlanders, when they announce their decision to rent out their house and move to Belgium for several years, thereby not only offending the younger duo but also eliminating the reason for living in Colorado.

What’s an expectant couple to do? They embark on a seemingly fun, quite an ambitious itinerary of visiting friends and family, whereupon the narrative assumes the classic structure of a road flick, consisting of a loose string of episodes, each set in another city and differentiated from one another by title cards and music.

Phoenix, the first stop on the grand tour, is actually the weakest segment in the picture because the tone and the acting are off. The couple spends a day at the dog races with Lily (Allison Janney, a reliable pro who’s unfortunately over the top here), Verona’s former colleague, who’s irrepressible, suffocating her hubby and child, and inappropriate; she plans a kiss on the Burt’s mouth as a farewell.

Next stop is Tucson, where Verona’s sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo), her lone living relative lives, is slightly better and more emotionally effective because the siblings engage in intimate talk about their mother, giving Verona a much needed refreshed perspective on her life and relationship with Burt, to whom she is committed by may also have taken for granted.

The saga builds up to a comic (and a bit fake) chapter in Madison, Wisconsin, where Burt’s childhood’s friend/’cousin’ Ellen, now calling herself LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), lives with her partner Roderick (Josh Hamilton). Over dinner, the couple is shockingly exposed to their hosts’ bizarre philosophy, specifically their intractable ideas for raising children (there are vehemently against using strollers) and running the most liberal household one could possible encounter. Holding that physical closeness is the key to mental health and happiness, LN and Roderick spend a lot of time on their enormous bed (which dominates the room) and preach for making love in front of their baby.

Burt and Verona literally flee this crazy house and go to Montreal, which represents the most shockingly honest episode. What begins as a nice and warm welcome from their former college classmates Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey), who are seemingly happy with their large multi-racial family of adopted children, turn into a sour and sad visit when, during a night on the town, Munch takes the stage of a club while Tom delivers a stunning monologue with devastating revelation of how Munch has never overcome the tragedy of going through several miscarriages.

An emergency phone call from Courtney (Paul Schneider), Burt’s brother in Miami, represents an unanticipated detour and another emotional highlight, when Courtney discloses the burdens of being a single father to a daughter after his wife had mysteriously vanished.

In the problematic ending, Burt and Verona realize what we have known all along, that there are no role models and that they must define home on their own terms. Going out of its way to be both emotionally candid and terribly romantic, the scene is too cute and facile, negating the resonance of the good preceding chapters.

Cllearly, ‘Away We Go’ is, among other things, about contesting stereotypes, particularly as far as sex and gender roles are concerned. The couple’s different ethnicity is taken as given (which is good) and, for a change, it’s Burt who’s anxious to officially tie the knot and Maya as the reluctant companion (later on, it’s suggested why she’s hesitant and doubtful about marriage as a legal institution). Ditto for Burt’s brother who laments his wife’s irresponsibile disappearance; in most fictions, it’s the men who leave.

Problem is, with one exception, all of Burt and Verona’s relatives, friends, and classmates are eccentric, strange, or troubled, which barley conceals Mendes and his writers’ condescending approach towards the characters. You wonder, if the couple is so pleasant and normal, how come there is not a single person in the yarn who’s like them, on their level?

That said, the writing in at least half of the picture is sharp and poignant, and the acting of the central couple is terrific. Both Krasinski and Rudolph have done great TV work (he in NBC’s “The Office,” she in “Saturday Night Live”), and neither is particularly physically attractive—not by standards of leads in mainstream Hollywood. Their ordinary looks and natural charm imbue the film with a realistic dimension, turning them into a more creditable couple to which members of the audience can relate more easily.

 

Cast

Burt – John Krasinski
Verona – Maya Rudolph
Gloria – Catherine O’Hara
Jerry – Jeff Daniels
Grace – Carmen Ejogo
Lily – Allison Janney
Lowell – Jim Gaffigan
LN – Maggie Gyllenhaal
Roderick – Josh Hamilton
Tom – Chris Messina
Munch – Melanie Lynskey
Courtney –Paul Scneider

Credits

A Focus Features release of a Focus Features presentation in association with Big Beach of an Edward Saxon/Big Beach production in association with Neal Street Prods.

Produced by Edward Saxon, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf. Executive producers: Mari Jo-Winkler-Ioffreda, Pippa Harris.

Directed by Sam Mendes.

Screenplay: Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida.
Camera: Ellen Kuras.

Editor: Sarah Flack.

Music: Alexi Murdoch; music supervisor, Randall Poster.

Production designer: Jess Gonchor.

Costume designer: John Dunn.

Art director: Henry Dunn; set decorator, Lydia Marks.

Sound, Ben Patrick; supervising sound editor, Paul Hsu.

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 96 Minutes

 

 

 

Cast