'Away We Go' – Sam Mendes At His Most Laid Back

In 2008, director Sam Mendes gave us the marriage from hell with one of the year’s best movies, “Revolutionary Road.” We saw those two “Titanic” stars go at it like they were reincarnations of the characters from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and the movie proved to be a horror show more than anything else as we saw this doomed couple descend into the hell which is marriage in dull suburbia. Then in 2009, Mendes gave us a movie which is more or less its polar opposite, “Away We Go.” It’s a sweet if flawed comedy-drama that focuses on a couple who manage to stick it out together as they travel from one city to another in an effort to find a place they can call home. You could almost say this is Mendes’ apology for the horrifying experience which was “Revolutionary Road,” but that movie was so damn good, why should he have to apologize for it? At least with this one, he observes a loving couple who are not out to scream at one another.

“Away We Go” stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a couple who suddenly find themselves expecting their first child (the moment Burt finds out is classic). They share their great news with Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander (the always fantastic Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), whom they see as their chief support system through the pregnancy. However, Jerry and Gloria end up laying a bombshell on the expecting couple by announcing they will be moving to Belgium for two years, and they will be leaving before their grandchild comes into the world. The only reason they have stayed in their present location was to be close to Burt’s parents (Verona’s are both dead), and so they both decide to go on a vacation to find a new home with people they know who they can form a strong family unit with.

With “Away We Go,” Mendes gives us a road movie with two characters traveling from Arizona to Montreal to find a home they can call their own. Signs keep popping up like “AWAY TO TUSCON” or “AWAY TO MIAMI” as Burt and Verona continue their travels, hoping to find the support system they need. Things get off to a shaky start when they first go to Phoenix and meet up with Verona’s old boss, Lily (Allison Janney), and her alienated family. This moment plays more like a sitcom and features situations I have seen many times before, and it made me feel like the rest of the movie would be even worse. Janney is a hoot, but she plays the scene too broadly and it never feels real enough. Jim Gaffigan, on the other hand, who plays Lily’s emotionally repressed husband Lowell, fares better as he doesn’t overplay his hand. There is one moment where he goes over all the bad things which could be happening to him, and he keeps talking long after everyone wants him to shut up. It is a darkly hilarious moment.

Things, however do improve from there. The setup is familiar, but Mendes and his actors give this endeavor a lot of heart which really won me over. Rudolph has a wonderful moment where she meets up with her sister Grace, (Carmen Ejogo) and they are hanging out in a bath tub and talking about the past neither of them feels ready to revisit because it’s too painful. Their dialogue is really good, but it is their faces which do most of the acting as their eyes serve as windows to their mournful souls.

Maggie Gyllenhaal also makes an appearance here as LN, a cousin of sorts to Burt. Along with her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton), they live an insanely subdued life of peace and tranquility which is really more of a hilariously terrifying example of repression. Krasinski steals a scene as he rebels against LN’s way of living by giving her son the one pleasure no child should ever be denied – a ride in a stroller. Gyllenhaal is a kick to watch here as she gives this movie one of its most memorable moments.

The people Verona and Burt meet from there vary in degrees of happiness and sadness, and it wreaks havoc on them as it would any expectant parent. Like many, they are presented with scary examples of what could end up happening to them. Some of the couples seem very happy at first, but it serves to mask a deep hurt they are trying to keep under wraps. I think this will be a good movie for expectant parents and/or young couples to check out as they will probably relate very easily to what these two end up enduring in their travels.

The screenplay by the husband and wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida does not travel into original territory. There are several clichés to be found as we travel with this loving and petrified couple from place to place. Their dialogue, however, does manage to lift the movie above the routine, and it delves deeply to give us characters with many different dimensions, and this includes the ones with the shortest screen time. They even manage to surprise us with revelations I did not see coming even if I sensed trouble was just around the corner. Some of the speeches do have an original feel to them, and they are delivered by a well-chosen cast who are fearless in digging to the root of the movie’s most emotional moments.

Krasinski is perfectly cast here, and he is almost completely unrecognizable with all that darn facial hair. As Burt, he gives us a character so lovably goofy, and he also shows a vulnerable side as many of the things scaring him about becoming a parent comes right up to the surface. Burt could have easily been turned into a stereotypical in another film, but Krasinski turns him into a well-rounded individual from start to finish.

But the real revelation of “Away We Go” is Maya Rudolph. She is one of my all-time favorite “Saturday Night Live” performers, and she showed quite a range from playing characters like Megan (the future Mrs. Randy Goldman as she called herself) to her hilarious impersonations of Donatella Versace and Beyoncé Knowles. With this movie, she reminds us of how she is also a very accomplished actress in case we foolishly did not realize this previously. Even when she is not talking, a movement of her face communicates how she feels, and it speaks volumes of what Verona has been through, and of the family she lost and still misses.

Mendes’ career as a filmmaker from “American Beauty” to “1917” shows a brilliant artist who is super focused on every element involved in creating a movie. It is not just about the acting or the screenplay, but he pays just as much attention to the set design, the cinematography, and the film score to create motion pictures which stand above so many others. With “Away We Go,” he seems to have changed his pattern of directing here, and it looks like it has freed him up to make a fly-by-the-pants movie where he does not have to focus on each element as he had before. As a result, this is probably his weakest film to date as there were certain elements which could have been improved on. Regardless, he has not lost an inch of his talent, and even with the least of his movies he gives us memorable characters and settings which stay with you long after the picture fades to black.

“Away We Go” plays better on the small screen due to its rather intimate nature, but if you are looking for a nice romantic movie, this is certainly one to check out. It starts off imperfectly, but it gets better and better as it goes on.

* * * out of * * * *

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