A film review by Craig J. Koban

AWAY WE GO jjj
½ 

2009, R, 97 mins.

Burt: John Krasinski / Verona: Maya Rudolph / Gloria: Catherine O’Hara / Jerry: Jeff Daniels / Lily: Allison Janney / LN: Maggie Gyllenhaal / Munch: Melanie Lynskey

Directed by Sam Mendes / Written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida

"The joys of parents are secret, and so are their grieves and fears."

Francis Bacon

 

Sam Mendes’ AWAY WE GO is a simple, but strong, film that is brilliant for how it kind of sneaks up on you and completely defies your expectations.  It contains many elements of so many other countless stock genres (it’s part comedy, part drama, part sly social satire, and part road trip flick), but the resulting film never feels conventional or predictable.  There is a wonderful exploratory vibe through it as it takes its unusually sharp witted and well-drawn characters on a physical and emotional journey.  That, and it has a near pitch-perfect sense of understating in its scenes for maximum dramatic effect and payoff.   It’s best achievement is perhaps that Mendes infuses in his characters a remarkable depth and warm sincerity, which makes their own tumultuous journey into adult and parenthood all the more surprisingly moving and heartfelt.  Like other recent indie darlings, like JUNO and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, AWAY WE GO is a small and unassuming film in stature, but substantially larger in spirit and genuine sentiment. 

This may be one of Mendes most atypical films to date.  He has certainly ascended to the upper echelon of the directorial elite and has demonstrated time and time again his breadth and variety as a filmmaker.  He has made a truly compelling and thoughtful war film (in 2005’s dreadfully undervalued JARHEAD), a graphic novel adaptation/gangster film (in 2003’s exemplary crafted ROAD TO PERDITION), a corrosive and darkly acerbic suburban family satire (1999’s Oscar winning AMERICAN BEAUTY) and made a deeply fatalistic and harshly honest dissection of the myth of the middle class American dream (last year’s REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2008).  

AWAY WE GO is another stab at the family unit for Mendes, which I guess gives it a cursory similarity to AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but its overall tone is far less miserable and desolate.  As much as any other of his films, AWAY WE GO showcases what a master Mendes is at observing and reporting on the human condition, but this time he goes for a much more upbeat and jovial tone with sprinkles of melancholy and sadness that do not feel too saccharine or force fed.  What really makes this a departure for the typically hard-edged Mendes is that it’s about nice people that are nice to each other that are trying to find a nice place in the world to raise their child-to-be.  AWAY WE GO maintains such a terrific congeniality and effervescent disposition that it’s hard not to label it as an instant, feel-good charmer.  Much like what its characters do during its story, watching AWAY WE GO is like taking a pleasant journey with many colorful and unexpected pit stops. 

The film also contains two of the most surprising break-out performances of 2009 by two of the most unlikely talents:  SNL’s Maya Rudolph and THE OFFICE’s John Krasinski, the latter whom I’ve only seen in the somewhat problematic screwball comedy LEATHERHEADS and the former I have only be exposed to on her not-ready-for-prime-time TV gig.  Part of the film’s superb sense of discovery is in seeing how Mendes shreds these performers of their TV performance habits and empowers them create soulful and fully realized characters that are easy to like and admire.  What’s most endearing – and easy to overlook – is how effortlessly the two inhabit characters that could have easily been victim to sitcom level clichés; they instead make them feel natural and alive.  These are people that we have seen I thousands of films before: thirtysomethings that still feel like teenagers that, despite their relative book smarts and education, are experiencing a difficult and emotionally taxing transition into becoming parents and adults in general.  Lesser actors could have played these roles on exasperating auto-pilot, but Krasinski and Rudolph makes these quirky personas feel palpable all throughout AWAY WE GO: we never once doubt, not for one second, that they are not in love or a tangible couple.  The two of them together harness some of the finest chemistry of any on-screen pair this year, and there is an astonishing level of droll sophistication the screenplay gives them.  Their dialogue exchanges have a intelligent, colorful and amusingly neurotic edge, which helps the film elevate far, far away from other wasteful genre efforts. 

The film opens by introducing us to the inseparable and mutually devoted pair: Burt Farlander (Krasiniski) and his lover, Verona De Tessant (Rudolph) as they both discover that she is pregnant in one of the most offbeat and funny sex scenes in a long time (let’s just say that Burt “knows” she is pregnant for how one vital part of her anatomy tastes differently).  Even though they are energetic and excited to bring a child into the world, the pair seem barely able to look after themselves:  They have very little money, have a drab and dreary little house in Connecticut that has cardboard in the windows and a shocking lack of heat, and seem somewhat unsure of themselves as parents.  They are essentially living a sort of bohemian college lifestyle of improvisation, but even Verona begins to realize that they need to make some radical changes for the better: “We don’t live like grown-ups,” she depressingly muses at one point.  No kidding.

From this point they decide to make amends for the better: They hatch a plan to travel around North America in search of the finest place and best atmosphere to settle down and raise their child.  Their spiritual trek begins back home with Burt's parents (played in brief, but side-splitting cameos by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), but just when they think that they will open up welcoming arms with their news of becoming grandparents, they shock Burt and Verona by telling them that they are fulfilling a life promise to themselves…and are abruptly moving to Antwerp for two years.  Burt is devastated that his mother and father will not be around for his child’s birth, but seeing these tragically self-absorbed and pompous buffoons behave, perhaps the best place would not be near them. 

Somewhat downtrodden, Burt and Verona now decide to visit other friends (Verona’s parents are not an option because they are both dead) in places ranging from Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal and finally a deeply personal stop in Miami.  Like many road trip films, the people they encounter are all eclectic, offbeat, and crazy in one form or another.  Two sets of couples are arguably the least well adjusted of the bunch:  While in Phoenix Verona visits a past employer named Lily (a toxically hilarious and ferociously unhinged Allison Janney; she’s never been better) and her husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan).  Lily, to be frank, is an alcoholic and obliviously mean-spirited presence, who lacks any level of self-control or moderation with both her drinking habits or the things she says to her children.  Less verbal offensive, but equally unsavory, is Burt’s childhood friend in Madison named Ellen (played in a brilliantly loopy performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who now has pretentiously changed her name to “LN” and has become a militant feminist with a ditzy flower-child sensibility.  She breast-feeds both children (even when one appears to be four or five-years-old) and she never allows strollers in her home (“I love my babies," she states, “So why would I want to push them away?”).  After a disastrous supper with her and her even more obnoxious husband (who looks like a hippie-religious zealot), Burt and Verona abruptly leave, but not until he can and taunt and tempt LN’s child with a ride in a…well…you know.  I have not laughed harder during a scene all year. 

The last two stops of Burt and Verona's trip are the most heartrending and distressing.  The couple heads north of the border to Montreal where they hook back up with two college friends named Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) who occupy two deeply tragic figures to Burt and Verona in the sense that they desperately try to maintain outward facades of being happy and adjusted while inside they are damaged goods (revealed in a scene of authentic sadness).  The last leg of Burt and Verona’s trip culminates in Miami with Burt’s brother, whose wife has just abruptly left him, which leaves Burt and Verona with some nagging questions about the longevity of their own relationship.  The film reaches a moment of soft-spoken power when the pair discusses these painful uncertainties.  After dealing with their own insecurities the couple finally decides to confront the memories of Verona’s deceased parents, who were taken away from her when she was 22. 

I loved how AWAY WE GO does not condescend to its viewers by placing Burt and Verona in contrived situations that seem recycled from dozens of other banal road trip films.  The film is as smart and it is disarming for how frequently hysterical it is (a recurring gag involving Burt stressing Verona enough with harsh words to increase her fetus’ heart rate is uproarious), but also for how it finds a sobering heartbeat in its meaningful themes.  At the core of the film is a motif that these intelligent and independent souls have to confront their own somewhat misguided views of themselves and how they fit into the world.  Their journey celebrates the notion of the importance of becoming parents, but also with dealing with the somewhat alarming and stressful implications of what becoming parents really means.  Traveling high and low and observing all of the couples that Burt and Verona come across is almost initially taken as a form of window shopping for them (they are trying find the best and most appropriate environment for a child to live), but there is a growing disillusionment with the process when they begin to slowly realize that there is not a truly well-adjusted setting in the bunch.  The location of where to raise a child almost becomes secondary to how the couple will find it within themselves to change.   That’s what becoming paternal figures is all about. 

For these reasons, Sam Mendes’ AWAY WE GO is a quietly transcendent comedy-drama.  The director forgoes any stylistic flourishes that have permeated his past lavish efforts and instead shoots AWAY WE GO with an unfussy and unpretentious economy.  These precise choices also allow for the thoughtful script to come to the forefront; kudos needs to be given to the lyrical and compassionate screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who give all of their characters a tender depth of feeling and dimensionality (which is mostly attributed to the fact that they are novelists).  Perhaps most crucial to the success of the film is that we have Rudolph (so sweet, serene, and effectively understated in her revelatory work here) and Krasinski (matching a child-like whimsicality and carefree energy with a deeply nurturing and faithful protective figure that will always look over his wife’s best interest above all others), who combine to produce two of the most tender, good-natured, fascinating, and believable screen couples of 2009.  AWAY WE GO is another unqualified triumph for the gifted auteur in Mendes, but it is really Krasinski and Rudolph’s film that euphorically stand out.  They are magic together on screen.

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