Up until this point, they had avoided responsibility. They lived like nomads, sequestered from family and friends while indulging in their own insular (and happy) homebound careers. But biology – like money, and power, and the possibility of same – changes everything, and for unmarried couple Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph), the lack of a legitimate home for their newborn child brings about the need for change. But with only the slightest connection to the rest of the real world, such a massive personal modification will require a point by point breakdown of the possibilities. Thus begins a road trip which takes the couple back home (to his parents) to Arizona (her friends and family), Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami – and in the process, our expectant parents learn that home is not necessarily where the heart is. It’s actually where true happiness dwells.
For Sam Mendes, such cinematic ground seems strikingly similar to the territory he traversed with such suburban nightmare masterworks as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. This time around, however, instead of equating ennui and malaise with an upcoming interpersonal Armageddon, the English filmmaker finally finds a funny bone. Scripted by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius scribe Dave Eggers (along with wife Vendela Vida) Away We Go first appears to be a collection of Americana clichés. But then it actually evolves into a telling statement on growing up, taking charge, and realizing that life cannot be a constant struggle to continuously stray off the beaten path. Sure, the examples that Mendes and his collaborators use seem arch in their stereotypical approaches. But with each chestnut comes a rejection, and a realization.
The trip begins at the Farlander house, where SCTV‘s Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels give middle age wistfulness a wacky, uneven coating. One moment they are celebrating their son’s upcoming parentage. The next they are abandoning him for a long planned pilgrimage to Europe. To the Farlanders, two years seems like nothing. But to new mom to be Verona, it’s like a declaration of grandparental abandonment. Things don’t get better in Phoenix, where ex-coworker Allison Janney puts on one of the worst displays of post-modern maternal cool ever conceived. In both of these sequences, Mendes relies on a kind of Caucasian white face, a blanket denouncement of white man’s culture combined with obvious sitcom types. But by making Burt and Verona disgusted by such outbursts, by giving them the silent critical eye the material mandates, the movie manages to override the Galleria burlesque.
Things change radically once we get to Wisconsin. Maggie Gyllenhaal practically steals the film as LN (“Ellen”), a New Age joke who buys into every organic composting conspiracy theory in the realm of ridiculous hands-off guardianship. Along with her semi-conscious partner Roderick (underplayed brilliantly by Josh Hamilton), they provide Burt and Verona with the chutzpah to finally stand up for themselves. Up until this point, our leads were likely to sit back dumbfounded, politely nodding as one ridiculous idea after another is fostered toward their future. But the minute LN starts her frazzled family bed routine, a light bulb goes off in our heroes’ heads. This is the where their formerly unfriendly and close realm mindset will lead them – into a similarly styled space filled with made-up philosophies and arguably insane pronouncements. And their dinner table reaction to all the hedonistic nonsense is one of Away We Go‘s greatest comeuppances.
At this point, Mendes can no longer avoid the melancholy. Montreal sees the couple facing mortality – both their own and the still unborn child’s – with uneasy trepidation, and an emergency mission to Miami underlines the fragility of their common law relationship. It’s interesting that Away We Go champions such unconventional ‘marriages’, offering Burt and Verona as the far more spiritual and centered pair in a whirlwind of crude and incomplete couples. It’s the same with almost every aspect of the film. As Mendes mocks child rearing and prenatal psychobabble, he gives us a duo that seem so present, so completely in tune with each other and their situation, that we hope none of this nascent negativity sticks. By the time they realize that they simply have to take that necessary leap of faith (during a conversation on a trampoline, no less), we wonder where the jump will take them.
In the end, it’s not very surprising where they land. What’s really amazing is how moving the revelation becomes. For all its jokey upscale jive, the occasional smug self-satisfaction Burt and Verona use to calm their frazzling nerves, Away We Go provides the kind of closure that elevates our ongoing worries. They may not have it all figured out, and there are moments when even their soothing tone of optimism seems blind and unbelievable, but the bottom line remains – these are two people who realized they were wrong and then tried to do the right thing. They took on the list of social requirements for happy families and found the flaws in each and every one. Luckily, Mendes has an amazing cast to collect his thoughts. Krasinski’s Burt is beautiful in his deadpan directness. He doesn’t mince words so much as carefully pick the ones he know will do the most damage. Rudolph elevates her status as a legitimate movie star, looking both stunning and scared as the portal from which all the promise – and problems – commence.
Yet the final shot is something worth celebrating, a moment of perfect peace after 90 minutes of pinball emotions and crisis-like upheavals. As Burt and Verona sit, their arms interlaced, they appear to finally realize that they can have it all – social acceptance and isolated exclusivity. They don’t need to be unhappy married making fun of their own offspring, or miserable martyrs to some unspoken sense of personal diversity. They can be themselves while still seeing the best that the real world has to offer. They are smart enough to accept the good and conscious enough to reject the bad. It may be tough to tell if their arriving daughter will recognize the lengths they have gone to in securing her future. Luckily, they’ve done the leg work for her – and the journey is well worth taking.