Away We Go
Following the star-studded venomous marital spats that comprised much of his flatly on-the-nose adaptation of Richard Yates’ celebrated portrait of marital dysfunction, director Sam Mendes, no stranger to such themes by that point, felt he needed a change of pace. Fearing the great artistic death that is “habit forming,” Mendes chose to drift into the realm of Amerindie for what feels like elegant slumming in the wake of a string of high profile, high-minded commentary on the dark underbelly of various guises of Americana.
But while a cross country road trip of uncertainty undertaken by two expectant, unmarried thirty-somethings might seem an odd project to draw the attention of a married, forty-something Oscar-winning filmmaker, who is let's not forget British, this is every bit a Mendes picture; a series of vignettes of increasingly bizarre and despairing dysfunction marbled with biting sardonic wit.
Having been flatly informed by his parents (a brief but wonderfully comic turn of selfish silliness by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) that they are moving to Belgium a month before the birth of their grandchild, Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) suddenly find themselves without a reason to be where they are. Overwhelmed in equal parts by feelings of freedom and abandonment, they embark on a cross-country tour of relatives, old friends and former colleagues as they search for a suitable place to put down roots. More intelligent than it is insightful, it nonetheless manages to steer clear of the self-referential dialogue and wearily hip pop culture references that these days no indie flick is complete without.
Having said that, there is something ever so slightly insidious in the way that celebrated husband and wife writing team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida depict this where-to-now vision of a longtime couple. “Are we fuck-ups?” questions Verona, as she ponders their somewhat rudderless situation, “I’m worried that we might be fuck-ups.” Well they’re not, quite the opposite in fact. They are nigh perfect and while this out of the blue pregnancy suddenly assaults the established order of their lives and makes them feel vulnerable, they are never seriously challenged by it. Krasinski is suitably dweebish as the earnest to a fault Burt, while Ruldolph is a picture of hormonal insecurity that you never doubt will find her strength. They really are just a very nice couple, and sadly that’s all they are.
As with many depictions of two people in love written by two people in love, Away We Go seems reluctant to examine the central couple too deeply for unbalancing the pleasant status quo. Rather at times you can almost imagine certain lines being written by one as some sort of gift of affection to the other. Instead of a calculated dissection of a comfortable relationship under threat, they inevitably become the invulnerable standard by which everyone else is measured. Stopping off to see her sister in Phoenix, Verona instructs Burt to ask about her latest loser boyfriend and then tell her he’s great no matter what because “she would really like to hear that from you.”
First stop after that is Tuscon where Alison Janney and Jim Gaffigan offer us a slice of midwestern white trash urban paranoia while their overweight children stare at their shoes, suitably embarrassed. From there it’s on to Madison and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton’s unbalanced flower children engaged in the practice of a communal bed and the banishment of the three S’s; no sugar, no separation and no strollers. The clear winners though, and the only time the film really nails any subtext are Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynsky), Burt’s old college buddies in Montreal. Having surrounded herself with an adopted brood after a series of miscarriages, Munch takes to the stage on amateur pole dancing night at a local bar not to tantalize the audience but to satisfy an inner desire to prove she is somehow still a real woman.
While these vignettes are undeniably both funny and tragic they hardly present anything like a realistic alternative to what Burt and Verona have going. Rather they serve as funhouse mirror reflections designed to illustrate just how sorted they really are. Yes, pregnancy does tend to create an encompassing bubble of self-absorbed behavior, but surely the intention here must be to pop it or at least penetrate it in some way? But this couple is never tested. They start in love, they continue in love, and you know they are going to stay in love. While it is certainly refreshing for a film built around a pregnancy not to have the inevitable cut to the birth in the final reel, you can’t help but ponder what exactly the point of it all is? Away We Go paints itself as a movie about choices, but in the end never seriously offers any. Rather it goes to seemingly inordinate lengths only validate the choices Burt and Verona had already made.
Starring: Sam Mendes, John Krasinski, Maya Ruldolph, Alison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton
Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 98 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features