Movie Review: Away We Go
Who would have thought that the director of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road would make a film with an optimistic attitude about the power and strength of love? But that’s exactly what Sam Mendes has done with Away We Go, a story about two people searching for their place in this world, and finding it in each other. After the cynicism and “hopeless emptiness” of his previous projects, Mendes’ latest effort offers a refreshingly realistic and supportive couple who take on the world together as a unified team. The result is a sweet little film that doesn’t attempt to confront any grand, philosophical issues, but approaches life-sized dilemmas thoughtfully, without manufactured conflict or forced sentimentality.
Co-written by married novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the story follows expectant parents Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) as they travel around the country looking for a place to settle after Burt’s self-involved parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, the first wave in a steady tide of terrific supporting players) announce they’re moving to Belgium a month before the baby’s due. Determined to live near someone they know, Burt and Verona set out to visit friends, relatives and acquaintances in different cities, from Phoenix to Madison to Montreal. The road trip that follows becomes a sort of Dante’s Inferno-esque tour through successively awful circles of nightmare parenting scenarios.
The first stop introduces us to Verona’s mouthy former boss Lily (Allison Janney) and her willfully pessimistic husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) , who turn a day-long outing at the dog track into a sort of white-trash version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That’s followed by a visit with Verona’s sister (Carmen Ejogo) in Tucson, where we get a little of her closely guarded backstory. Then it’s on to Madison and a disastrous dinner with Burt’s childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her partner Roderick (Josh Hamilton), who flaunt their trust-fund-supported neo-bohemian lifestyle and embrace a very specific method of child rearing – “no sugar, no separation, no strollers.” Just as Janney does in her scenes, Gyllenhaal dives right into her contemptible character, and the scene escalates into one of the laugh-out-loud funniest sequences of the entire film.
Vastly different situations are explored in Montreal – where Burt and Verona’s college friends Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) have built a loving home for a multiracial brood of adopted kids – and Miami – where Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) is dealing with the departure of his wife and his sudden status as a single dad. There are no big revelations or showy fireworks at the climax of the film, just a simple understanding as Burt and Verona come to terms with their past, present and future through the lessons they’ve learned on their journey.
Mendes takes a naturalistic, low-key approach to the material, making good use of the different locations to set the chapters apart from one another. Along with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, he gives each destination a distinctive feel, from the overly bright, sunburned desert hues of Phoenix to the rich, smoky dive bars of Montreal to the soft pastels of Miami. Thankfully, he resists the road-movie cliche of long tracking shots showing nothing but scenery, often transitioning between segments in more interesting ways, such as a view of a plane reflected in the mirrored glass of a building.
What keeps all these strands connected in a single through line is the performances of Krasinski and Rudolph. Here is the best example of the old adage that comic actors often do the best dramatic work, and their palpable chemistry makes for a believable, if unconventional, couple. Verona steadfastly refuses to marry Burt, but her true reasons are oddly romantic when they’re finally revealed. As many successful couples do, they seem to instinctively correspond to each other’s peaks and valleys, taking turns being the one to freak out and the one to provide reassurance.
Of the two, Verona is the more reserved, maintaining a quiet strength that belies a depth of emotion. Fans who only know Rudolph from her work on SNL may be surprised at her range here and how well she functions as the straight woman in the film. When we first meet Verona, she’s a bit of a mystery, closed off and unwilling to talk about her past. But as the film goes on and she slowly opens up, it’s like watching a flower bloom in time-lapse. When she’s ultimately called upon to deliver a long, riveting monologue near the end of the film, she makes it look effortless.
Similarly, with the help of glasses, a shaggy mop of hair and a bristly beard, Krasinski sinks into the role of Burt like a comfy pair of shoes. His slightly rumpled, rough-around-the edges style is miles away from The Office’s Jim Halpert. Though the two characters may be compared in their affability and their unfaltering love and support of their significant others, that’s where the similarities end. Burt is filled with a childlike, almost naive, enthusiasm that’s nicely complemented by Rudolph’s motherly qualities. And though he has some of the funniest bits in the film, when situations arise that strip away that genial veneer, it is something to behold. This is Krasinski’s best feature-film role date, and with more projects like this under his belt, he’s assured of a long, steady career beyond The Office.
The other element that holds the film together is the soundtrack, provided for the most part by singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch. Having a single artist predominate the score ends up working nicely as a connective device. His wistful guitar refrains give the journey a forward momentum, seamlessly carrying us from one chapter to the next, and his deep, honeyed voice sets a contemplative tone that underscores some of the film’s best and most emotional moments.
Some audiences may avoid this film because it reeks of an indie sensibility, while others may have soured on Mendes as a director after Revolutionary Road. While both of those predispositions are valid, there’s a lot more to Away We Go than meets the eye. Like a typical independent film, it eschews glossy imagery and extravagant production values for a more ordinary, grounded point of view, but it doesn’t have any lofty aspirations or take itself too seriously. It’s just a basic, well-acted road movie that will break your heart and put it back together again.