Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), though not married, are expecting a baby in about three months. Then, his parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, who are, unfortunately, on screen far too briefly) drop a bombshell. They are moving to Antwerp, Belgium a scant month before their grandchild is born and will not be back for two years. The only reason the young couple moved to Colorado in the first place was to be near their baby’s grandparents. Now, they must decide where they want to put their roots down and begin a cross-country trek to find the perfect place in “Away We Go.”
Sam Mendes, during his relatively short 10-year film-directing career, has created such works as his Oscar-winning debut, “American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition” and last year’s “Revolutionary Road.” With “Away We Go,” Mendes shifts gears from drama to comedy and the result is a broken transmission.
With the only reason to stay in Colorado moving thousands of miles away, Burt and Verona realize they need a game plan for relocating their lives. Here is when the story (written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida) takes a (more) absurdist turn.
There are many things that bug me about “Away We Go.” Spectacle-wearing Burt always, and I mean always, wears his glasses, even when sleeping or having oral sex with Verona. (Talk about poor eyesight.) Then there is Verona’s friend Lily (Allison Janney), whom they visit on their first stop. Lily is loud, rude and behaves totally inappropriately in public (something that the film does frequently, to false-feeling results, like an intimate moment in a Jacuzzi, in the middle of a store showroom).
Phoenix is no longer an option and the couple heads to Tucson Arizona to visit Verona’s sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo), to bland results. Cross Tucson off the list. They wend their way to Madison Wisconsin to visit LN (formerly Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an earth mother type who thinks it is wholesome and good to breast-feed her four-year old. (Another example of inappropriate (and a little sickening) behavior.) They make two more stops in their journey – Montreal to visit Burt’s old college friend, Munch (Melanie Lynskey), a loving adoptive mom who is obsessed with getting pregnant, but cannot. The final leg is to Miami to visit Burt’s downer, divorced brother, Courtney (Paul Schneider), a morose clinger that you just want to get away from. Where will these wanderers finally settle? The answer is, who cares.
Sam Mendes is off his mark and should stick to drama. This episodic mélange is merely a series of chapters that are loosely linked together with Burt and Verona’s not-very-real-feeling trek to find a new home. The surprisingly stodgy lensing, by Ellen Kuras, consists mostly of static shots that are unimaginative and dull. Other techs are adequate, but no more. The only positive thing in “Away We Go” is a charming performance by Maya Rudolph as pregnant Verona. The rest of the cast is guilty of taking an unearned paycheck. The blame, though, rests on Mendes. I give it a D+.
'Are we f*&%ups? We're 34. We have a cardboard window.' Verona De Tessant, "Away We Go"
Burt Farlander (John Krasinski, "Leatherheads," TV's "The Office") and Verona De Tessant (SNL's Maya Rudolph, "A Prairie Home Companion") have been living post-collegiate lives perhaps a decade too long in a tiny ranch in Colorado close to his parents. They hadn't planned on getting pregnant, but when they discover they are, they're flabbergasted to learn that Burt's parents Jerry (Jeff Daniels, "The Lookout," "State of Play") and Gloria (Catherine O'Hara, "A Mighty Wind," "For Your Consideration") are leaving to live for a few years in Italy. Emotionally uprooted when they know they should become grounded, Burt and Maya decide to visit friends and family around the country to find a supportive place to settle in "Away We Go."
Working from the first original feature script from Dave Eggers, whose autobiographical "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" also dealt with finding footing when parents are suddenly yanked away, director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"), whose last film, "Revolutionary Road," reflected a couple in flux in light of a new pregnancy, goes from dark to light, from stagnancy to on-the-move with this road trip to nowhere like home. Featuring a revelatory performance from Rudolph as the centered earth mother who nonetheless worries she and Burt have become losers, "Away We Go" illustrates parenthood in every color of the spectrum.
Of course the first set of parents are none other than Burt's, most amusingly played by Daniels, in hearty mode, and the cheerily optimistic O'Hara (who when she asks how black the baby will be, does so merely out of interest). Burt and Verona are thirtysomethings who have perhaps become a bit too dependent on proximity to the Farlanders and the Farlanders, while supportive, are retirees with an itch to live their own lives. They're empty nesters who want to keep it that way and Daniels and O'Hara never appear selfish in doing so.
Having the rug pulled out from beneath their feet gives Verona the idea that they should find another supporting player for their impending parenthood. They fly off to Arizona where there are two prospects. Verona's former boss and buddy Lily (Allison Janney, TV's "The West Wing," "Juno") lives in Phoenix but she's become the type of thoroughly inappropriate boisterous mom who not only embarrasses her teenage children but anyone who witnesses their embarrassment (of her daughter - 'Alison's a dyke with junk in her trunk.'). Disillusioned, the couple head to Tucson where Verona's younger sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo, TV's "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," "Pride and Glory") has an important job at the J.W. Marriott Star Pass Resort & Spa. Verona and Grace obviously share a strong bond, survivors of losing well loved parents. There is warmth to their scenes and Grace even notes that Verona is bringing their folks back in 'a little way.' But Grace is obviously a focused career woman vs. their shaggier style, so next stop is Madison, Wisconsin, where Burt has a job interview and a cousin, Ellen, who's a college professor. If the interview goes badly (Burt does well over the phone with his insurance clients, but his physical presentation is less than professional), the meeting with his cousin is an out and out disaster (which Mendes wisely plays for some raucous comedy). They're directed to her office on campus by a woman who notes she's 'the one without a stroller' and are greeted by a nameplate that spells her name as 'LN' and then the sight of her breast feeding two toddlers! Maggie Gyllenhaal ("The Dark Knight") is a hilarious nightmare as another version of inappropriate, this one also pretentiously intellectual and absolutely sure that her way is the only way. She's as awful as Miranda Richardson's hysterical mother in "Absolutely Fabulous" made even worse by her leeching partner Roderick (Josh Hamilton, "Diggers," "Broken English") who envies the male seahorse for its ability to carry offspring to term. Burt and Verona's gift of a stroller is met with shock (it is pushing the child away from one, you see) and is used by Burt to express disdain for their hosts as he gleefully pushes their laughing child around the house in it. (And here is a complaint with the screenplay - for a couple of such low income, they sure do fly around a lot and leave an unwanted gift behind that was expressly noted to have been very expensive.)
After this comic high point, the film turns resolutely melancholy, a good frame of mind to be in for the nostalgic final scene. Verona practically claps her hands with delight at what she perceives their college friends have built as the perfect home. An exquisite brownstone in Montreal has been filled with a UN of adopted children who are watching the "So Long, Good Night" number from the "Sound of Music" upon Burt and Verona's arrival (the movie ends there as well, explains old buddy Tom (Chris Messina, "Made of Honor," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), so as not to expose them to Nazis). But when the two couples go out for a night on the town, things take a decidedly dark turn when Munch (Melanie Lynskey, "Heavenly Creatures," TV's "Two and a Half Men") reveals the depths of her depression with an amateur talent show stripper pole (ugh, screenplay complaint number two, that pole). From Montreal to Florida to visit Burt's brother Courtney (Paul Schneider, "All the Real Girls," TV's "Parks and Recreation") who is adrift with his tweener daughter after his wife has left him. Verona adds some stabilizing influence, then tells Burt an amazing story about how her mother turned her father's fruitless orange tree into a magical thing and this proves the final lure to home. When Burt and Verona arrive at her folk's old Gothic farmhouse on the South Carolina coast it feels absolutely right for the couple. Something absolutely right about the screenplay (or perhaps direction, having not read the actual screenplay) - the film ends before the birth of Burt and Verona's baby. "Away We Go" is about the nest, not the hatchling.
This is Mendes' third film to focus on a marriage, but the first to do so with hope and optimism, even as "American Beauty" cynicism and "Revolutionary Road" despair are present along the way. Krasinski's easy going charm is terrifically teamed with Rudolph's down to earthiness, out of the box casting that really works. They're a winning couple and the actors invite us into their warm intimacy. The only annoyance factor is Krasinski's black framed glasses which never seem to leave his face, even during the cunninglingus which opens the film (played for both exposition and laughs - a terrific start, punctuated with the film's title). Support is a little uneven (as goes the script often), but Gyllenhaal is monstrously funny, Janney gratingly so. The male partners of everyone but Burt's parents are all outshone by their female counterparts, even those who aren't in the film, although young Pete Wiggins gets one of the film's biggest laughs as a toddler with sibling envy observed by Burt and Verona in the Tucson Marriott lobby.
"Away We Go" is a road movie to maturity for Generation Xers checking out the options of American familial life. It may be nothing new from Eggars, but shows a different side of Mendes and shines a whole new light on Maya Rudolph.
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