Saturday, June 27, 2009

Film Review #202: Away We Go
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Still peeved at Sam Mendes for last year’s disappointing and leaden Revolutionary Road and the waste of its two fine leads, many film critics have gone right on being cranky at him for his latest movie. Billed somewhat vaguely as a road-trip comedy about pregnancy – certainly a change of pace from his previous efforts – Away We Go opened in theaters on June 11 and comes to Central New York this weekend, trailing sour grapes.

In order to keep you reading, let me say I liked this little film a lot. It has some disadvantages, so let’s get them out of the way. The wrong poster can ruin a movie before you know what hit you. The ads for Away We Go feature Peter Max-style cartoons with wobbly sun rays, portentous arrows and log cabins drawn in cramped, faux-child perspective. These seem from an earlier era and suggest the movie might be about aging hippies. Then, the soundtrack comprises lyrics and guitar-strumming by Scottish musician Alexi Murdoch of the kind usually described as “evocative” and “folky.” It may be me, but increasingly I find such soundtracks grating and misguided. I think these two factors may be largely to blame for some usually better-tempered reviewers crossly calling this film “smug.”

Meanwhile, as Burt and Verona, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are anything but wasted. Together they manage the rather underrated feat of portraying an unmarried, earnest, genuinely loving though not particularly stylish couple in their early 30s who are expecting a child and aren’t sure where they fit, all the while without falling into parody, revealing themselves to be fools or revealing us to be rightfully cynical. These are roles that are deeply embarrassing when an actor falls short. But Burt and Verona are, as Roger Ebert says, nice people, and watching them figure out their next moves through a series of trials and toxic encounters provokes laughter that’s unexpectedly affectionate and expansive. Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, writers who happen to be married, wrote the script while they too were expecting, which may explain a lot.

As you know if you’ve heard anything about Away We Go, the story opens with Burt and Verona six months pregnant, living near Denver because that’s where his folks are. Massively narcissistic, Jerry and Gloria (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) suddenly decide they’ll move to Antwerp, Belgium for a couple years, just before Burt and Verona’s daughter arrives. There is the suggestion that Gloria might be overly focused on whether her granddaughter will be “dark” like Verona, the first of several seemingly off-hand zinger references to Verona’s mixed race. There is sometimes that rare movie in which you see a character transported to another age before your eyes. Stunned at his parents’ dinner table over their decision to leave him at his finest hour, Burt is suddenly that decent 14-year-old, a little gawky and serious, who can’t quite believe how the adults behave, caught in the act of deciding how he never wants to be. Later, watching Verona sing his brother’s daughter Camilla to sleep through a cracked doorway, you see Verona will be the mother Burt hopes for their daughter too, and that he knows that. A little while before this, when Burt erupts in madcap mayhem over a stroller, you see why Verona loves Burt steadily and doesn’t mind stapling their trip itinerary to the inside of his jacket.

Anyway, Burt and Verona embark on a sampler tour of cities where they might live. Although Mendes has shown himself prodigiously able to create distinctive American milieus before, there’s not much specific in any of these places except for some patched-on aerial footage – Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal and Miami. But Burt and Verona aren’t looking yet for a sense of place. This waits till the end, in her old family home. Instead these two, rather forlorn at their loss of parents, have to work through hitching their wagons to other stars for a while. Having sound instincts and clean hearts, work through this they do.

We should understand these encounters as set pieces – the brash alcoholic former boss and mother of two sullen kids who hits on Burt(Alison Janney), the wise sister-confidante, the insufferable PC cousin (a delicious Maggie Gyllenhaal), the unhappily diligent college buddies, the brother whose wife has left him with a young daughter to raise – as conventions in an Odyssey-like tale of young heroes who will be tested, tempted, distracted and finally reminded of finding their way home. Burt and Verona may never marry – she adamantly refuses, doubting the institution – but they do understand how to make and speak their commitments, even if it is on a backyard trampoline.

This review is from the June 25, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Away We Go opens June 26 at Manlius Art Cinema with screenings on Friday at 7:30 and on Saturday and Sunday at 2, 5 and 7:30.