Away We Go
Little film with big names mixes comedy, drama and pregnancy
By Devin D O’Leary
Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes
Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph
Away We Go looks and feels like yet another entry in a long, unbroken line of admirably glum/funny, nerd/hipster-centric indie film dramedies (Rushmore, Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, Garden State, Juno, Margot at the Wedding, Gigantic to rattle off just a few). As the film goes on, though, something starts to feel different. There’s something percolating under the surface here. Something more than just the impressive cast and witty humor in evidence. The other shoe drops when the end credits roll. (The opening credits consist solely of a title card, dropped some 10 minutes into the feature.) Amid the humble scroll of names are the identities of the director (Sam Mendes, the man behind American Beauty, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road) and the writers (Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida, sometimes referred to as “the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of the literary world”). That’s some mighty important info to bury in the end credits.
Then again, Away We Go is the self-conscious opposite of a showy Hollywood blockbuster. It’s quirky. It’s low-budget. It’s got one of those melodic-acoustic folk-rock soundtracks. Coming on the heels of Mendes’ splashy, Oscar-baiting (and honestly, rather wearying) Revolutionary Road, Away We Go feels like a tiny, refreshing palette cleanser.
Literary darling Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and his wife (Girls on the Verge) offer their patented form of melancholy tragicomedy courtesy of non-married-but-committed couple Burt Farlander (John Krasinski of “The Office”) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph, famously underused “SNL” alum). Burt and Verona are second-generation slackers wandering aimlessly through their early 30s. Living in a crummy apartment in Colorado, taking jobs that provide little more than rent money and not caring a fig about the future, our protagonists are nonetheless satisfied with the status quo. It would be hard to label them losers, because they haven’t even tried. They’re simply the product of overindulgent parents (or in Verona’s case, deceased-at-an-early-age parents), with little impetus to grow up or take on adult responsibility. That opportunity comes knocking, however, when Verona finds herself unexpectedly pregnant.
“Are we fuckups?” asks Verona in all seriousness. Burt insists they aren’t, though he can’t come up with any concrete evidence to the contrary. For his part, Burt expresses excitement over the prospect of becoming a father. He immediately embarks on an enthusiastic, if somewhat unfocused plan for creating an ideal childhood. (It involves whittling and fishing and several other ideas cribbed from Tom Sawyer.) Verona, on the other hand, grows increasingly concerned for their new family’s future. Coming to the conclusion that it’s time to end their rootlessness, the couple embark on a cross-country journey to find a place they can really call home.
Burt’s parents (a ridiculously free-spirited Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) don’t offer much help. They’re skipping the country two months before the baby is born so they can travel Europe as retirees. Out in Phoenix, Ariz., a couple of former co-workers (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan, both hilariously awful) provide a lesson in how not to raise kids. In Madison, Wis., Burt tries to reconnect with a longtime family friend named LN (not “Ellen,” mind you). Played to the hilt by Maggie Gyllenhaal, LN is a new age-y mama with some spectacularly weird ideas about parenthood. (Strollers, for example, are evil.) Finally, up in Toronto, Burt and Verona reconnect with some old college pals, a happily married duo with a multiculti brood of adopted kids. Beneath this seemingly perfect life, however, hides a host of painful secrets. All of this is deeply troubling to our couple, who aren’t simply looking for a place to live, but a way to live.
Like a lot of its ilk, Away We Go is a belated coming-of-age tale. The script doesn’t have a terribly focused narrative, but it fits the main characters nicely. Eggers and Vida provide some very funny jokes along the way. Mendes, the storyboarding formalist, mostly stays out of the way, leaving behind a restrained, homegrown style. If the film succeeds (and it does quite frequently), that’s due largely to the sympathetic work of Krasinski and Rudolph. It’s less about their perceived “chemistry” (which they have in spades) and more about the realistic, sympathetic gravity they bring to their roles. Rudolph is especially good as the more cynical of the duo. (Somebody in Hollywood please figure out how to cast this woman!) The supporting players are all quite funny, even if their roles do veer into caricature. (Gyllenhaal’s nutty neo-hippie is the most difficult to swallow.) It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that you’ll be fine parents in the end when everyone you run into is a complete and utter psycho.
Given the size of the talent involved in Away We Go, it’s not surprising to expect something bigger, something more significant. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t a bad idea to hide those names in the closing credits. Taken on its own terms as a quirky, episodic, shot-on-the-quick indie film, Away We Go successfully (if somewhat inconsistently) weds pathos, farce and just-short-of-twee minimalism to create an endearing comedic drama.
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