A Quasi-Quest, Bubble Included
Learning from other people’s lives
by Molly Templeton
AWAY WE GO: Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Cinematography, Ellen Kuras. Editor, Sarah Flack. Music, Alexi Murdoch. Starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. Focus Features, 2009. R. 98 minutes.
|Maggie Gyllenhaal, John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph and two tots in Away We Go|
The plot of director Sam Mendes’ new film, a small, scruffy followup to last fall’s precise Revolutionary Road, is simple: Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a thirtysomething couple, discover first that they’re pregnant, and second that Burt’s parents — whom the couple moved to Colorado to be near — are moving to Belgium before the baby’s birth. This news throws Burt and Verona for a loop, which is understandable as they don’t seem to have much connection with the outside world other than Burt’s fairly kooky parents (played with gusto by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara).
Both Burt and Verona have jobs that can be done from anywhere, so it’s easy enough for them to decide to pack up and head out to find the best place to raise their child. (How a couple who have a cardboard window and a space heater afford this trip is best left unpondered.) Away they go, picking destinations not for any geographical or urban appeal, but because they know someone there. Most of the film consists of the episodes of the couple observing and reacting to other people’s parenting styles, for everyone they visit, except Verona’s calmly confident sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo), has kids. In Phoenix, Verona’s brassy former boss smothers her husband and kids in incessant chatter. In Madison, Wis., Burt’s childhood friend LN (a gauzy Maggie Gyllenhaal), refuses strollers and has a husband who wishes he were a seahorse so he could bear the children. Away We Go is so sweet and accepting of Burt and Verona’s mild foibles that the snidely satirical Madison sequence is a little hard to adjust to, no matter how smugly certain of themselves the new agey parents are. Thankfully, the trip to Madison ends with a gleeful bit of rebellion that sends Burt and Verona giggling into the evening.
In Montreal, the pair stop in on college friends Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey), and Away We Go finds its most honest moment in Munch’s disconcerting physical expression of a grief Burt and Verona didn’t know she was experiencing. In just a few lines, Lynskey nearly steals the film from Rudolph, whose Verona is warm but wary, an observant woman who seems to stand back from everyone around her — except lanky, goofy, easygoing Burt.
And that’s the problem — not so much with Away We Go, which ultimately is pretty but oddly thin, but with the people who populate the film. They’re almost all the same, all convinced they have something no one else has, certain that only they can find the right way to do things (Burt’s heartbroken brother is the exception). And they all seem to exist in a bubble of their own making, not least Burt and Verona, who find that the best place to put down roots is a lot like the place they started. The couple’s trip is an exercise in forming their opinions based on what they don’t like in the people they see. They’re a believable, solid pair, but even the film’s most touching moments serve to reinforce the the way they’ve made a world out of each other.
If you find that appealing, you’ll likely respond more warmly to Away We Go. If you find that small a world claustrophobic, well, consider this: Burt and Verona are that nice, smart couple you find yourself chatting with at a party; you make plans to have dinner with them a few times, or you meet for drinks. And eventually you realize that you’re never going to know them. You’ll see them, talk to them, but everything will stay neatly on the surface. In The New York Times, A. O. Scott wrote, “This movie does not like you.” But it’s not that the movie doesn’t like you. It’s that the movie doesn’t need you. It probably doesn’t really want you, either. No offense.