Away We Go

Another movie about and/or aimed at educated, self-aware 20-and-30-somethings, a certain portion of which, of course, hate nothing more than a movie trying to entertain them or depict them in any way.

Away We Go

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski, Paul Schneider, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara
Distributor: Universal
Studio: Focus Features
US Release Date: 2009-09-29

The story of Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), an unmarried couple expecting their first child, traveling around the US visiting friends and family, searching for a place to put down roots, hardly seems like a controversy magnet -- and Away We Go wasn't, really, but it did inspire some passionately dismissals. Most memorably, A.O. Scott of the New York Times warned audiences: "Make no mistake: this movie does not like you."

The reason for this irritation is the way the movie, now on DVD and Blu-Ray, supposedly positions Burt and Verona as lovable hipsters, superior to every family they encounter, like Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan as a half-loud, half-miserable couple from Phoenix, or Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton as self-righteous nouveau-hippies from Madison. But a narrative in which some relatively normal people encounter a succession of comparably wackier characters wasn't invented by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the husband-and-wife team that wrote the screenplay, nor are all of the supporting characters derision-ready cartoons (though a few are).

Away We Go joins a parade of movies about and/or aimed at educated, self-aware 20- and-30-somethings, a certain portion of which, of course, hate nothing more than a movie trying to entertain them or depict them in any way, but especially with style or humor. If this sub-demographic (or some members of its close generational sibling in being professionally over it, Generation X) senses that movie characters are, say, talking about a rock band vaguely perceived as hip, they will either dismiss the dialogue as pandering (listen to those shameless jerks kissing my ass with references!) and/or out of touch (and everyone knows Wilco is lame dad-rock anyway!).

Of course, the characters in Away We Go don't even talk about bands – they just look like they might. Burt's scruffy beard and prospective-father quirks (he takes up whittling, which he mistakenly refers to as "cobbling") are enough to set off alarm bells; just what is his beard trying to say, huh? This suspicion of inauthenticity is peculiar form of self-doubt masquerading as self-deprecation (see the popular quasi-humor blog Stuff White People Like, the premise of which is, essentially: I am so much cooler than me), and Away We Go itself is actually quite adept at depicting that exact emotion. "Are we fuck-ups?" Verona asks Burt at one point, in all heartbreaking honesty.

On a commentary track with Eggers and Vida, Mendes refers to the characters living in a "selfish bubble" -- not in a negative way, he notes, but as part of a sort of nesting instinct, a nuance that may have been lost in the rush to describe Burt and Verona's supposed hipster superiority. That the 30-ish Burt and Verona are facing adulthood more gracefully but no less uncertainly than any number of feckless 20-somethings generates some of the movie's strongest emotional pull. Rudolph gives a particularly lovely, subtle performance, layering her fear, exasperation, and love.

The commentary hints that it took some work for the movie to reach this level. Mendes alludes to cut scenes, especially early on, that focused more on the farce of a first-time pregnancy; the home-video release leaves them out, too, perhaps not wanting to break the movie's delicate spell. Even more interesting, some of the best scenes between Rudolph and Krasinski were, per the commentary, added later, as Mendes nudged the writers toward reflection.

When the filmmakers discuss these scenes -- both those missing and those added in later drafts -- and picturing without them, I caught a glimpse of the self-satisfied, trifling movie others saw. In the past decade, Mendes has gone from praise as the Oscar-winning American Beauty wunderkind to condemnation as a superficial, surface-polishing director, but here he appears instrumental in letting the writers' occasional whatever-y affects fall away.

It's a shame, though, not to hear from the actors, who are so instrumental in making the movie work, smoothing over the more caricatured passages. For the most part, anyway: when Burt and Verona visit Burt's family friend Ellen (or "LN") (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her husband (Josh Hamilton), campus dwellers whose disdain encompasses, among other commonplace concepts, strollers, hiding lovemaking from children, and working for a living. Gyllenhaal does have fun with LN's self-righteous smugness, and kidding her own ultra-progressive rep. She has LN figured out down to the gesture -- on the commentary, Mendes points out several lines she came up with herself, having some knowledge of the child-rearing techniques her character loves -- but can't manage to rag her up from the screenplay's condemnations.

In these scenes, blessedly few, it feels like Eggers and Vida are venting, rather than observing. They've doubtless encountered LN types as progressive, artsy novelists, and indeed one of the only other special features on the disc is an explanation of Away We Go's green filmmaking initiative; the production attempted to offset its carbon footprint and reduce as much waste as possible. Apparently the disc looked for conservation, too: even on the higher-capacity Blu-Ray release, the main advantage is the enhancement to the movie's lovely visual scheme, full of landscapes and Mendes's careful framing.

There are some stereotypically indie distractions, like Alexi Murdoch's folky, same-sounding song score and an ending that, while sweet, makes resolution perhaps a touch too easy for our heroes. But whatever its origins or intentions, Away We Go is funny, mostly lovely, and does right by its drifting characters. Make no mistake: that's what's on the filmmakers' minds, not their opinions of you.


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