Director: Sam Mendes
Notable Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal
You almost get the feeling that Sam Mendes struck it big before he really got started as a filmmaker. With plenty of experience directing actors on the London stage, the film American Beauty would be his calling card to Hollywood. It was his debut as a filmmaker, and the film won every award imaginable, including a Best Director Oscar for himself. In 2008, he helmed Revolutionary Road, a wrenching drama of 1950s suburbia, which saw Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio reunited onscreen. Two hours of sitting through that you had to check your clothes to make sure the acidic display of emotions didn’t somehow leave you stained.
With the exception of his film Jarhead, Mendes’s directorial efforts seem to focus on families – especially suburb life. Even Road to Perdition, a period drama set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and organized crime, retains a family dynamic when a mob enforcer and his son flee to Chicago.
Away We Go, his latest, shies away from the agonizing point of view depicted in Road. In its place is a lighter road trip flick that instills the importance of family while giving us laughs along the way. Oh, and you won’t have to worry about its acidity: the material is more congenial.
Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) live inside a cramped, converted trailer in Connecticut; one of the windows is broken and covered up with cardboard. In the opening scene they discover she’s pregnant. After a few months they are cramped again, this time the two of them are driving to visit his parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), sonogram pictures in hand. And this is where the craziness begins. Seems that Mom and Dad have a surprise of their own: They’re moving to Antwerp for two years, leaving the soon-to-be parents without a support staff in raising the baby. (Verona lost both her parents when she was twenty-two.) For this couple in their early thirties, the phrase “don’t count your blessings,” is most appropriate. Assessing the situation, Verona and Burt make the decision to leave the northeast and head out on the road looking for a new place to call home. Going through a list of past acquaintances, college friends and family, the couple crisscross North America starting in Arizona (Phoenix and Tucson), heading north to Madison then Montreal, before finally ending in Miami.
With road-trip movies mostly geared towards a teenage to mid-20s demo nowadays – typically involving booze and drugs – Away We Go instead enforces adult themes about the growing pains that come with parenthood. The stops Verona and Burt make along the way is a means to weigh their life as it currently is against those who currently have children of their own.
Mendes’s dark tone from previous works has been replaced with quirkiness. Nowhere is this more evident than the gallery of characters that inhabit this pic. Included are Verona’s ex-boss with a sailor’s mouth (Allison Janney) and her family in Phoenix, Burt’s cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a hippie professor in Madison who refuses to push her children in strollers, friends from college who are long since married (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) in Montreal, and Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider), who recently became a single dad after his wife abandoned him and their daughter.
Each stop is a new perspective and seemingly far worse than the one that precedes it. The stops offer a checklist of things that should and should not be done when attempting to raise a family. And the more the film progresses, the more serious it becomes. Verona confronts her tucked-away memories about her parents’ untimely deaths, affirming her own life in the process.
Lifestyle changes are almost inevitable when a baby comes into the picture. Restful nights become restless; personal goals take a backseat to making sure a newborn is content. If anything the parents in Away We Go are examples of how not to raise a child, both physically and emotionally. Verona and Burt see parenting’s underbelly and it is this understanding that leads them to the place they can call home.
This may be a Sam Mendes picture, but both the screenplay (written by the husband-and-wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida) and the casting of the central actors are the strongest points. The Office‘s John Krasinski his character is an upbeat guy who’s cheerful and devoted to a woman that refuses to marry him. Maya Rudolph, once a cast member on Saturday Night Live, gives a solid performance as Verona. Her character is funny, not because of situational comedy, but because of the chemistry she has with Krasinski. In one scene he tells her that he’ll love her even if it takes her years to lose the baby weight. To which she cries out “Ugggh,” a pillow wrapped around her face. Away We Go has a more natural comedy, not shooting for laughs but getting them out of the characters’ actions.
Sadly, with the supporting characters the actors either seem out of place or they’re painted as caricature archetypes. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s hipster lifestyle is downright creepy when it comes to sleeping arrangements. And Daniels and O’Hara almost seem like politicians that are totally unengaged when it comes to their constituency, or in this case, family needs.
I’m not exactly sure what Focus Features hopes to accomplish with unleashing Away We Go during a season of terminators, wolverines and angels and demons. It may not be a surefire Oscar contender, but it feels like a film that would be better suited for a fall release. Still, the acting of the central characters and the travails of becoming a parent make it well worth a watch.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):
Tags: American Beauty, John Krasinski, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maya Rudolph, Sam Mendes