It’s been so long that I can’t remember where I first read it anymore, but there’s an old parable about a village wise man who meets with three couples, each looking for a place to settle down and wondering if this particular town is the right fit. Each couple asks him the same question: “What are the people in this village like?” He responds to each by asking, “How were people where you lived before?”
No matter what the couples tell the wise man, he responds by saying, “You’ll find that people here are basically the same” — the moral of the story being that your experiences with the people around you are, at some level, basically a reflection of who you are. It’s overly simplistic, maybe, but it’s also very true — and my mind kept returning to it during Away We Go.
Director Sam Mendes’ previous meditations on domesticity have run from the violently acerbic (American Beauty) to the unremittingly bleak (Revolutionary Road), so it came as something of a surprise when he emerged with this relatively sunny portrait of a young couple (played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) trying to find a place to settle down before their baby’s impending birth. With a screenplay written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and a brilliant supporting cast that includes Catherine Oâ€™Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, and Jim Gaffigan, Away looked — on paper, anyway — like a perfectly low-key, drily humorous U-turn for a director who seemed to have become more interested in edification than entertainment.
Alas and alack — with Away We Go, Mendes forsook heavy-handed messages for a movie that isn’t really quite sure what it wants to say.
As the movie opens, we learn (in a pretty unconventional and frankly funny scene) that Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are expecting their first child. They’ve moved to Colorado in order to be closer to Burt’s parents (O’Hara and Daniels), and plan on leaning on them for help once the baby is born — but no sooner have the grandparents-to-be learned of the pregnancy than they announce they’re moving to Belgium for a few years (and renting out their house to strangers in the bargain). Thus unmoored, Burt and Verona set about finding the perfect place to put down roots, hitting the road to visit friends in Arizona, Wisconsin, and Montreal. (This begs the movie’s first question — how in the hell can an insurance futures salesman and medical illustrator who live in a crappy little hovel with a papered-over broken window afford to do all this traveling? — but don’t worry; it’s quickly eclipsed by other, more onerous problems.)
Eggers and Vida, as overlords of a budding NPR-friendly literary empire, have taken their fair share of knocks for writing and publishing the kind of navel-gazing egghead liberal hooey that gives egghead liberals a bad name; given their credentials, you’d expect Away We Go to contain at least a little red stater-baiting, and it doesn’t disappoint, via the Arizona sequence that finds Burt and Verona visiting Lily (Alison Janney) and Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), a pair of colossal boors whose contempt for their children is exceeded only by their contempt for one another. The movie saves most of its ire for loopy lefties, though; during their visit to Madison, Burt and Verona spend a few uncomfortable hours in the presence of the insane LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Roderick (Josh Hamilton), a pair of seahorse-fetishizing knuckleheads who live down to every earth mother/bearded bohemian stereotype you’ve ever heard. The Arizona and Madison scenes are both funny, in their way, but by the time Burt erupts in a boil of pent-up rage and runs around LN and Roderick’s house with a stroller (don’t ask), you can’t help but wonder why any of these people were ever friends in the first place — and whether Eggers and Vida thought the only way they could make us care about their protagonists was by making everyone else in the film a complete asshole.
It’s a valid question, considering how hard it is to care about Burt and Verona. Burt is essentially a bearded, even more rumpled version of Jim Halpert, the character Krasinski plays on “The Office”; he operates mostly at an even, bemused keel, which comes in handy often, since Verona seems to be in a perpetually bad mood (we learn early on that her parents are dead, and it’s a subject that the movie teases, needle-like, as it goes along; if you come to the conclusion, early on, that it’ll prove central to the story, give yourself a gold star). It’s clear that they hold themselves apart from everyone else — at one point, Verona even comes out and asks Burt, “no one’s in love like us, right?” — but what’s so special about them, if anything, is never shown. They aren’t bitter like Lily and Lowell, and they aren’t judgmental hippies like LN and Roderick, but that might be mostly because they aren’t really anything; they just sort of bob along, uncomfortable in the knowledge that their rootlessness and lack of conviction says something troubling about them (in Verona’s words, “we’re fuck-ups”), but unwilling to be a part of anything.
This becomes clear in the movie’s third act, when Burt and Verona head to Montreal to spend time with happily married serial adopters Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey). Tom and Munch have one of those huge Rainbow Coalition homes that look like living adoption pamphlets, and initially, Burt and Verona are so in love with it — and Montreal — that they decide they’ve found their place. But Tom and Munch are grown-ups, with grown-up problems — something that might seem like a foregone conclusion to any thinking viewer, but comes as a shock to Burt and Verona. It’s here that the movie unfortunately hinges; as they learn their friends’ sorrow, the look Burt and Verona exchange isn’t one of shared concern, but one of horror and revulsion. A plot twist soon pops up to take them out of Montreal, but it seems pretty clear that they would have left anyway, and the sour note Away We Go hits here is so distracting that it clouds over the rest of the movie. Burt’s outburst in Madison is puzzling — he calls LN and Roderick “awful people,” even though they don’t really deserve it — but you can live with it. The Montreal sequence, on the other hand, forces you to ask yourself just what in the hell these people want.
I won’t spoil the answer for you; I’ll just tell you I didn’t really buy into it, despite some really fine acting from Krasinski and Rudolph, who do their utmost to make Burt and Verona a wonderfully realistic (if not terribly likable) couple. There isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, actually, and Mendes keeps things appropriately close and down to earth; for a travelogue with an extreme shortage of scenery, Away We Go is a wonderfully visual film, full of nifty, rewarding small touches. It’s clear a lot of love went into the movie — but sadly, it’s a mystery as to why.
The Blu-ray edition of Away We Go includes a smattering of extra content, including the increasingly prevalent “My Scenes” feature, which allows you to, as the packaging puts it, “collect your own movie clips…then send to your Buddies on the BD-Live Center through your Internet-connected player.” Which is cool, I guess, although I can’t imagine ever wanting to take advantage of it. Far more interesting is the commentary track, provided by Mendes, Eggers, and Vida; the three make for a wonderfully chatty, entertaining trio, and a lot of their comments help illuminate just what kind of movie they thought they were making (hint: better than the one they actually made). There’s also a standard making-of featurette, as well as a look behind the scenes of the producers’ green filmmaking efforts.
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