Review: Away We Go
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Against their better judgment, a lot of people are going to enjoy “Away We Go,” the closest thing to a feel-good picture to ever come from feel-bad director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Jarhead,” last year's excellent “Revolutionary Road”). Do yourself a favor and don't follow the pack. While it may seem harmless on the outset, this pregnancy dramedy is largely soulless and wholly pretentious, a studio film that wants so badly to be a word-of-mouth phenomenon like its thematic cousin “Juno” that it attempts to duplicate the '07 Oscar winner's hip-yet-heartfelt design right down to the off-kilter, illustrated poster art. Problem is, it's too busy wearing its cool and kooky heart on its intentionally wrinkled sleeve to remember to keep its blood flowing. The script, by husband-and-wife team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, certainly has its tender moments but, more often than not, it's hampered by far-reaching, oddball rhetoric that the writers mistakenly think accounts for true originality. The result is irrelevant and borderline manipulative, and the only reason I'd watch this movie again is to revisit its colorful supporting characters, all played by terrific actors who stand apart from their not-so-terrific surroundings.
From the beginning, it's nearly impossible to identify with Burt and Verona, a 30-something couple who in scene one discover they're about to become parents. Though they're portrayed by lovable TV stars John Krasinski (“The Office”) and Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Live”), these two are barely likable, mainly because they're saddled with dehumanizing, only-in-the-movies quirks and dialogue. He's an insurance salesman (I think) who adopts an awkward sports-announcer voice whenever he takes a call; she's an edgy artist who creates medical illustrations. Together, they're prone to frequently discussing anatomy, inconsequential philosophies and random topics, all of which translate as: “listen to how odd-yet-ordinary we are! We're just like you!” But they're not, nor are they like anyone you've ever met. The only people they resemble are characters from better indie-type films who were much more naturally and convincingly developed. This is a problem that worsens once Burt and Verona hit the road.
You see, the couple is happy, but they live in squalor in middle-of-nowhere Colorado, and with the baby on the way, they need to find a better place to lay down their roots. Well, they might have actually stayed put had it not been for a startling announcement from Burt's parents who, in the first of many episodes within the story, reveal that they're moving far away from their son, daughter-in-law and impending grandchild (Why? Because they're weird characters in a movie that likes weird characters). Bereft of their last parental connection (Verona's mom and dad died when she was 22), the expecting duo heads off to half a dozen map points (Tucson, Montreal, Miami, etc.), each the home of an old friend or family member and each introduced by an all-for-style, black title card (“Away to...”). Will one of the destinations prove the ideal location to raise a family? The weight of the notion doesn't even resonate until well into act two, and even then it's hammered into submission by the film's endless self-serving idiosyncrasies.
Burt's flighty parents (forgive the pun) are embodied by the always marvelous Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels, the first set of those expert supporting players I mentioned. We also meet Verona's younger sister, Grace, who lives in Phoenix and is played by the lovely Carmen Ejogo (“The Brave One”). Then there's LN (for Ellen), Burt's childhood friend from Wisconsin who's now a disturbingly idealistic hippie played with fiery verve by Maggie Gyllenhaal. In Montreal, we find Tom and Munch (don't ask), our couple's old college friends who adopt because of infertility and are portrayed with surprisingly heartbreaking grace by Chris Messina (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Melanie Lynskey (“Shattered Glass”). Best of all is Verona's former co-worker, Lily, a highly inappropriate loudmouth from Phoenix played by the great Allison Janney in a wild, white-hot, show-stealing performance. (Is there anyone out there who's better perfected the role of the socially inappropriate friend/family member? I don't think so.) All of these actors excel in this film because, in one way or another, they operate on a frequency that transcends the material. Some, like Gyllenhaal and Janney, fly free to hilarious effect, while others, like Messina and Paul Schneider (who plays Burt's Miami-based brother, Courtney), give dramatic depth to their lines that catch us off guard. We don't feel any strong connections to their characters but, hell, at least they're interesting. In fact, compared to Krasinski and Rudolph, who tend to wallow in Burt and Verona's odd-yet-ordinary drabness, they're downright compelling.
For Mendes, “Away We Go” is a low point, the first film from the director in which the style doesn't elevate the story, but finally snuffs it out. Sure, the multi-regional cinematography by Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) is handsome, and the original music by Scottish singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch is memorable, but it all reeks of pretense, just like the script. There's a less-than-subtle metaphorical shot of the couple on an airport's moving sidewalk that's blatantly ostentatious, and it's a visual example of why character details like Maya's deceased parents and refusal to wed don't affect but fall flat. (There is one late scene set on a trampoline that achieves some poignancy, but it, too, gets polluted by overtly eccentric jargon.) At the end of this disjointed road trip, Burt and Verona do find their nesting site (apologies for the spoiler), and it's one of multiple instances wherein the director blares Murdoch's alt-rock score to amp up the drama. As our uninteresting, unlovable parents-to-be scan the grounds of what will become their home, the music swoops in for one last ear-piercing, side-swiping wave of emotion. And here we discerning moviegoers sit, feeling...unmoved.