Away We Go

Successfully amplifying their low-wattage, TV-grade charms to the big screen, John Krasinski (The Office) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live) almost manage to save Sam Mendes’ latest film from himself. Though they ultimately fail, one at least looks forward to seeing more of them on the big screen. Mr. Mendes on the other hand has just about worn out his welcome.

Krasinski and Rudolph play Burt and Verona, a couple of stunted 30-somethings who find they’re about to have a baby. When Burt’s parents reveal they’re leaving the country before the baby is even due, the couple realize they’re no longer chained to one spot and they’re free to find the perfect place to raise their child. What follows are a series of road trip vignettes as Burt and Verona travel from one American hellhole to the next, learning how to be parents by learning how not to be parents.

It’s a journey with humor, heart and a few life lessons to be learned along the way that might work well on paper. Treated with a measure of subtlety, the screenplay by novelist Dave Eggers and his novelist wife Vendela Vida might also have become a winning movie, but Mendes has never shown a knack for the understated. With his typically pudgy directorial fingers, he applies all the finesse of a dentist’s drill to his cartoon impression of the United States until the film is inflated into a caustic, outsized freak show. Away We Go has all the nuance of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon without a shred of honesty, reality or relatability to anchor it down. Unmoored, it flounders awkwardly, veering unevenly between comedy and drama for a while before finally losing buoyancy and collapsing under its own weight.

That’s not to say it’s not occasionally funny or heartfelt. In small trailer-sized bites, Away We Go is worth a chuckle, but as one grotesque character piles on top of another, it quickly becomes too much. It’s a shame, because Mendes has assembled a promising cast including Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s self-absorbed and disinterested parents; Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan as suburban Phoenix parents from hell; and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a New Age nightmare mother. The comic potential is great, but it’s all so heavy-handed and irritating that it never takes humorous flight.

Mendes tries to hide his jaundiced vision of America with plenty of emotional hand-wringing on the part of his lead characters. He also punctuates every dramatic scene and bookends every annoying vignette with the musical yearnings of Scottish folkie Alexi Murdoch. The gambit backfires however and the otherwise pleasant sounding Murdoch only comes across sounding unctuous.

Worthy of special derision is one of the film’s big emotional payoff scenes where Burt and Verona reconnect with Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Melanie Lynskey (Heavently Creatures), a couple of college buddies with a gaggle of adopted kids. It turns out they’ve repeatedly tried and failed to have children of their own, a fact revealed in a drunken monologue by Messina while an intoxicated Lynskey twirls herself dramatically around a stripper’s pole gazing blankly at the cheering crowd. It’s another “floating plastic bag” moment from Mendes and it not only sounds like nonsense, it is. It’s also emblematic of the weird tonal shifts the director tries and fails to harness in telling his story.

Mendes’ last overwrought but stillborn foray into Americana, Revolutionary Road, at least had some beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins and some fashion-catalogue-friendly early 1960s costume and production design to disguise the film’s exaggerated narrative and emotional contortions. Grunged up to fit the faux-indie aesthetic Mendes is hijacking however, Away We Go doesn’t even have pretty visuals to hide behind.

Despite it all, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are surprisingly likeable and they’ve got good chemistry together. Krasinski shows a broader comic range than he gets to exercise on the small screen and Rudolph displays a genuine emotional depth you wouldn’t expect from a comic actress who has appeared in so little. Had Mendes allowed the supporting characters a bit of humanity, he could’ve delivered a fine drama in spite of himself. Alternatively, if he had more of a facility with comedy, Away We Go could’ve been an entertaining farce. Instead, it reaches for both while succeeding at neither.

Away We Go. USA 2009. Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Music by Alexi Murdoch. Edited by Sarah Flack. Starring John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Catherine O’Hara, Carmen Ejogo, Jim Gaffigan, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina and Paul Schneider. 1 hour 37 minutes. MPAA rated R for language and some sexual content. 2.5 stars (out of 5)

10 Responses to “Review: Away We Go (2009) ** 1/2”

  1. I <3 Sam Mendes.

    Can’t wait to see this!

  2. Yeah, but did you like it, Craig? ;)

    And ouch re “Revolutionary Road”, a film that only gets better the more I think about it, but I’m weird like that (a bit of a masochist, methinks).

    BUT gee, the trailer for this film underwhelmed me big time — to the point I was a little angry about it (how many films of this genre do we really need?!?). So at least I don’t feel too guilty about pre-judging it ;) I might watch it when it comes on USA on a Saturday night in two or three years.

  3. I find that several movies suffer from the “faux-indie aesthetic”. Where did this start, btw?

  4. Dorothy, I almost didn’t want to dredge up Rev Road again, but I know the film has a lot of fans around here and I wanted to expose my bias so those who loved it can decide whether or not to give Away We Go a chance despite what I’ve said here.

    Having said that, I tried Rev Road twice and it was only more disappointing the 2nd time around. As I said back when the movie was fresh, for the first 30 or 40 minutes I thought I was watching the best movie of the year unfold, but then it all went to hell when the ordinarily very reliable Michael Shannon showed up. I don’t blame Shannon, I blame Mendes.

    Among the people I know and respect, I’m pretty much in the minority with that opinion so it might turn out I’ve got Away We Go wrong too, but I have to say the trailer plays better in a lot of ways than the movie so if you were turned off by it, this might be like pulling teeth. In the actual film, Rudolph and Krasinski come off better, but everyone else comes off worse.

    The music is intact from the trailer, but luckily there’s none of that annoying indie animation in the actual film. If anything the indie aesthetic is actually toned down a teeny bit and that’s for the better.

  5. You are on a stunning roll here Mr. Kennedy! You are writing many reviews as of late, but they all are showcasing some exceptional descriptive writing and perceptiveness. This one is no exception, although for reasons you support, I will take a pass despite the chemistry of the main characters.

  6. Thanks Sam. After floundering for a few months there, I feel I’ve gotten my energy back. Here’s hoping it lasts.

  7. I’m with Dorothy – loved Rev Road but thought the trailer for this looked bad.

  8. I’m with Sam 100%. Not much interest in this movie, but damn do you put out some fine writing about it. I’m particularly fond of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon imagery as the extended metaphor interwoven throughout. Ya dazzle me sometimes, Kennedy.

    Revolutionary Road had so much potential. I consider it a missed opportunity, a might-have-been masterpiece. And I’ve come to agree that the problem lies in the direction, not the performances or the screenplay, and certainly not in the technicals. You know the book is one of my favorites. It’s a novel that writers tend to love, I think, because the writing and insight are so keen, devastating in the tiny subtle moments between actions, Yates makes it look easy. A lot of that came through in the film’s performances, even yet, which I think is why the film resonates with many like Dorothy, but I think Mendes was too heavy handed. And the score–while impressive in itself–was misused. The scenes did not need to be underscored by its repetitive disonances. And he botches the ending worse than April Wheeler did. Bad choices. I keep wondering what the film would have been like with the same cast and team otherwise, but a different director.

    I’m thinking maybe Mendes should keep trying to branch out, just in a genre where subtlety isn’t exactly at a premium. Maybe he could do, say, Transformers III. Dancing white plastic bags, blown all to hell.

    I think I do still like Road to Perdition. But I haven’t seen it in years. American Beauty, either. Maybe I just love the look of it.

  9. Well thanks Jennybee, comments like that make writing fun.

    I haven’t seen American Beauty in years, but I’m currently rethinking Mendes’ entire filmography. Lack of subtlety in drama is one of my big pet peeves and Mendes doesn’t know subtlety from Shinola. I still kind of liked Rev Road despite its numerous missteps, but it ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of last year for me.

    Mayhap I should put the book on my list of things to read….

  10. Despite my hesitant admiration for more aspects of this movie than you, you’ve got a killer third paragraph here.

    I do agree that stopover in Montreal is awkwardly handled, but I dug Messina in most of the aspects of that role, partly because I think he was playing the other side of his character from Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

    I do know where you’re coming from with this, though, and I’d much rather read a well-written and thoughtful pan (even if it’s not a full pan) than a caustic, more cynical critique. Nice work.

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