In Theaters: Away We Go
Any Sam Mendes film would be a palate cleanser following his aggressively foul Revolutionary Road. But Away We Go, featuring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a pair of 30-something expectant parents on the road to somewhere and nowhere all at once, represents more than some automatic bounding back from rock bottom. It's even more than watchable! In fact, the more I think about it, did Sam Mendes make a good film?
Well, sort of. Steeped in twee and drunk on regional stereotypes, Away We Go also dares to consider the flip-sides of those scourges. "Are we fuck-ups?" Verona (Rudolph) asks her boyfriend Burt (Krasinski), six months pregnant with his child and bundled up with him in their chilly, rural Connecticut bungalow. He doesn't know, but leans "Yes"; his parents (played by Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) are relocating to Belgium before Burt's child is even born, leaving him and Verona little reason to remain close to home. Not that they know what else is out there. Yeah, probably fuck-ups.
But inertia has a cure -- or at least they hope it does. Thus begins their countrywide journey in search of a new home: First to Phoenix, where Verona's ex-colleague (Allison Janney) lives loudly and hopelessly in the nuclear family from hell. Then to Tuscon, where Verona's sister (Carmen Ejogo) fled the shadow of their late parents. Then to Madison, Wisc., where Burt's childhood friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) slinks through a shudderingly new-age, child-stifling psychosis with her own family. Then to Montreal, an urban idyll where even the most loving, adoptive parents (Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina) are torn by their inability to conceive. Then to Miami, where Burt's brother (Paul Schneider) is winding down his first day as a single dad after his wife left him and his daughter. See a pattern yet?
In keeping with the literary tradition of husband/wife screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Away We Go feels less episodic than anthologized. And with each fable comes its moral -- Mendes's own didactic, signature flair. But the mismatch makes for kind of an amazing show, for both better and worse. For one, the Phoenix sequence plays like a direct lift of Frances McDormand's kid-centric squawkery in Raising Arizona, with the Coens' irony traded out for Mendes's condescension. But the real coin of the realm is shellshock, with Janney and screen husband Jim Gaffigan both succumbing to the same sort of death trance that afflicted Mendes couples in American Beauty through Revolutionary Road. Here, however, reduced to cameo-like screen time and without the responsibility of resolution -- not to mention being opposite the idealistic Burt and Verona -- their suffering is too concentrated to ignore.
The same goes for all of those on Burt and Verona's whirlwind tour, and what happens in Montreal is really too gape-inducing to spoil here. And when they're not imparting lessons of how to be -- or, more specifically, how not to be -- the young couple's hosts provoke discussion among the two of them en route to their next destination. Eggers and Vida have the patois down, if not quite the sincerity. Deep Truths™ like "Nobody's in love like us" devolve into "I will love you even I can't find your vagina" as time goes on, and Krasinksi and Rudolph do their honest best to play it like a shabbier, less-symmetrical Wes Anderson. Naturally Mendes gives them just the right, tasteful music cues to really emphasize the sweetness of it all.
But even if I knew where the characters would end up way before they apparently did, and even if their journey did provoke equal parts loathing and empathy, those qualities' coexistence yielded an unusual intrigue -- and not least because in 90 minutes, Mendes didn't make me angry once. He even made me think. Are these two fuck-ups? Again, probably. Are they Sam Mendes's first step to restitution, maybe even redemption? Would you believe, yes? RATING: 6