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Away We Go

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: John Krasinksi, Maya Rudolph, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal

(Focus Features; US theatrical: 12 Jun 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 18 Sep 2009 (General release); 2009)

Review [27.Sep.2009]

In Love Like Us

This past winter, Sam Mendes gave us Revolutionary Road, which featured a husband and wife who couldn’t stop screaming at each other. His follow-up, Away We Go, is breezy and summer-appropriate—but its central couple still has problems. Burt and Verona, both in their early 30s, are unmarried and unmoored, about to have their first child and unsure of where to nest. One night, cuddling in a motel room, Verona turns to the man she swears she’ll never wed and says, “No one is in love like us, right? It’s so weird. What are we going to do?”


Well, retching is one possibility, though Burt is way less likely to do so than the audience. Away We Go isn’t all so precious a this, but there’s a significant pile of quirk to sift through to find its nuggets of genuine emotion. Written by first-time screenwriters Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, the movie offers an intriguingly physical take on the couple’s psychological searching. That they must make their way through much wackiness, however, may be its deal breaker.


Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) haven’t planned the pregnancy, and their first hint is a change in her “vaginal flavor,” noted by Burt in the opening scene of blanket-obscured cunnilingus. A few months and pants sizes later, they visit the baby’s only grandparents, Gloria and Jerry (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels). This dinner is torturous, with Jerry unnaturally overenthusiastic and Gloria classically clueless. “Just how black do you think [the baby] will be?” she asks mixed-race Verona.


The couple is willing to put up with such discomfort in order to raise the child near family. As Verona’s parents are dead, they’re disappointed to hear that Burt’s are moving out of the country one month before the birth. When they express outrage at what they see as Gloria and Jerry’s selfishness, you kind of want to smack them—were they expecting all-access babysitters, or just looking forward to sharing their joy? Either way, Verona spins the news into a positive: as they both have mobile jobs (he’s an insurance salesman, she’s some sort of artist), they are free to start new lives wherever they want. And so they set out to visit places where they have some sort of tie, including Phoenix, Madison, Wisconsin, and Montreal.


Their travels introduce them to various nut-jobs, from Verona’s obnoxious former coworker (Allison Janney, who looks like she’s having fun as a mother who crudely mocks her own children) to Burt’s extremely New Age-y old friend, LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal, likewise seeming happy to act unhinged). Whereas these characters are irritatingly broad—one of the film’s highlights is when Burt finally quits being polite and tells LN she’s full of shit—the seemingly ideal couple they visit in the Great White North are a bit unrealistic in their openness: Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) are Brad-and-Angie cool, with a mixed brood of adopted, adorable kids. When both couples are tipsy and hitting an all-night diner, Tom launches into a spiel about how love is everything, and it sounds more like a pretty, cinematic monologue than anything a chatty drunk would spill over pancakes. And have I mentioned that a melancholy indie soundtrack fills in the interludes, Garden State-style?


Away We Go eventually settles down, raising honest questions about parenting styles, the risk of loving someone, how to cope with traumas and setbacks. Rudolph is a portrait of grace throughout, quietly observant and always believable as an occasionally eye-rolling half of a long-term couple, no trace of her usually outsize SNL characters to be found. Krasinski is slightly less successful, if only because his thick beard and glasses are distracting, as if he’s trying too hard to escape The Office. As the couple starts to more clearly see where they belong—and exchange vows that sound more meaningful than any of the ones stiffly repeated at most weddings—you may be surprised to find that Away We Go has swept you along to its destination.

Rating:

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