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)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Alexi Murdoch, Allison Janney, Away We Go, Carmen Ejogo, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Messina, Dave Eggers, Ellen Kuras, Jeff Daniels, Jim Gaffigan, John Krasinski, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maya Rudolph, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider, Sam Mendes, Sarah Flack, Vendela Vida