A wonderfully well-intentioned flock of stock American-indie scenarios wrapped up in a cosy, folky soundtrack and lavished with charming comic interludes, Away We Go never strives to be much of anything and succeeds quite well in its aims. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, as all works of art should always know their limitations, but it seems like somebody might have tried a little harder. Maybe it’s asking too much, but for the screenwriting debut of two literary wunderkinds (married duo Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida) that just happens to be shot by a director (Sam Mendes) whose last film was one of the great literary adaptations in recent memory (Revolutionary Road), one expects at least a couple attempts to swing for the fences.
It’s possible that the film’s lackadaisical attitude came about quite organically after coming up with such a sparklingly perfect and well-tuned cast. As Burt and Verona, the low-key early-30s couple who set off to find a new place to live after Verona becomes pregnant and they discover Burt’s parents are moving abroad, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Their muted, lo-fi way of living is more than just some hipster statement like the soulful voices always murmuring on the overused soundtrack; their easy-come easy-go attitude and lightly jabbing verbal interplay feeling as lived-in as their junked-up and falling-down house in the sticks.
As Burt and six-months-pregnant Verona make their way around the country in search of a new home, they’re thrown into prepackaged comic encounters whose excellent players almost overcome the caricatured nature of the writing. A fiery Allison Janney and gloomily apocalyptic Jim Gaffigan present a sun-dazed picture of suburban psychodrama, while Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton perform a breathtakingly obnoxious satirical take on foggy-brained college-town intelligentsia smugness. Both segments—in addition to a too-brief appearance by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s alarmingly selfish parents—appear as self-contained little playlets whose sudden rush of freakish energy leave the rest of the film unbalanced.
Mendes, whose instincts have remained more theatrical than cinematic, throws so much effort into these sequences that the thinness of what holds the rest of the film together becomes readily apparent. When Eggers and Vida’s screenplay calls for Burt and Verona to meet up with comparatively normal people—a couple of college friends in Montreal, or Verona’s lovelorn sister—the resulting scenes play like something from another film. The screenplay’s sketchy, post-slacker, underdeveloped adult melodrama never finds a workable mix with its interruptions of Meet the Parents-like manias. And Mendes’ decision to just string it all together with chapter titles (“Away to Montreal,” etc.) and an amped-up soundtrack meant to carry too much weight makes the whole affair come off like a pack of dashed-off index-card scenes flung into some order and forced to stand on their own. As a filmmaker, the British Mendes seems more at home in stylized settings like the glossy living dead suburbs of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road than the fly-by-night road-trip Americana he wrestles with unsuccessfully here.
Like its leads, Away We Go doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss about any of its components, a decision that leaves many of its more meaningful (and sometimes quite lovely) ruminations on love and finding one’s place in the world stranded without context. What’s left is a finely pedigreed comic road film that, when all is said and done, is too finely-tooled for the NPR set to have much life left in it.