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Away We Go (2009) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 10 June 2009

ImageSam Mendes intrigues me.  He won an Oscar for his very first feature (American Beauty), an auspicious beginning that I assume puts a lot of pressure on a chap.  He then failed to capture the public’s imagination with his subsequent efforts (Road to Perdition, Jarhead, & Revolutionary Road) which all seemed to just miss the mark somehow.  I keep waiting, however, for him to live up to the promise he showed when he had the entire movie world talking about the stunning grace to be found in a plastic bag.  Of course, the screenplay for American Beauty is something that comes along once in a career and the material he chose afterwards was far less accessible.  Who wants to see a couple tear each other apart or the misery of what war is really like for soldiers in the Middle East?  What would happen, I wondered, if he chose to tackle something with a little more light in it?

Dave Eggers also intrigues me.  Here’s another fellow who made a huge splash with his first major work, in this case the celebrated memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  It is the most aptly titled book I have ever read.  He has had plenty of subsequent success in the literary community, but recently decided to try his hand at screenwriting as well.  His prose soars, but rambles and digresses for hundreds of pages.  Screenplays need to be clean and tight, with no extra adornment allowed.  Would he be able to adapt his brilliant wandering style to fit in a concise two-hour visual format?   We will have to wait just a wee bit longer to see his first effort, Where the Wild Things Are, co-written with director Spike Jonze and scheduled for release this fall.  His second effort, however, co-written with his wife, Vendela Vida, is in theaters now – the indie dramedy, Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes.

Away 1

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated (by me) collaboration of these two men is a little bit disappointing.  The film is not terrible and improves as it progresses, but is by no means a great piece of cinema.  The blame, as is often the case, lies mostly in the writing.

Away We Go tells the story of Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a married couple in their early to mid-thirties who are about to have their first child and are trying to figure out where to put down roots and what kind of family they’ll be.  Soon after we meet them they learn that Burt’s parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels), who live nearby, are about to move to Belgium, practically minutes before the birth of their first grandchild.  They have no other ties to the area and decide to move.  Faced with a big decision, the nervous couple devise a plan to visit various cities to which they have some sort of tie or another and afterwards settle in the one that suits them the most.

Their first stop is in Arizona, where they meet up with an old boss of Verona’s (Allison Janney) and her husband (Jim Gaffigan) who are clearly unhappy together and painfully indiscriminate about what they say in front of their children.  In Madison, Wisconsin, where Burt has a job interview (he’s an insurance salesman), they visit an old friend of his (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is now an ultra-hippie, family bed sharing, toddler breast-feeding mother of two.   At this point, the film had almost lost me for good.  All it had offered was a parade of caricatures (aside from Burt and Verona themselves) – starting with the selfish parents and ending with this complete wackadoo and her wackadoo mate.  I couldn’t figure out what the film was about or why I was watching it.  This is by no means the fault of the actors, who all do brilliantly in their roles.  It is the roles themselves that are lacking.


Then, unexpectedly, in Montreal of all places, the film finds solid ground.  Characters who seem like real people with real problems enter stage left and they, in turn, shed much more light on the wants and needs of our two main characters.  It is too little, too late to win me over completely, but the film definitely finds some redemption in the end.  Needing no redemption whatsoever are John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph who both turn in excellent performances.  I thought, before the movie started, that they were an odd pair to put together and doubted they were both Mendes’ first choices.  In fact, outside of Saturday Night Live, we’ve barely seen Maya act at all.  Surprisingly, they share a sweet onscreen chemistry and are believable as a couple who have been together for years.  

Away We Go is an uneven product with solid performances that picks up steam towards the end.  I would like to see more from all these folks as the film certainly has moments that shine.  Most of all, I hope that Sam Mendes decides sometime in the near future to take a stab at another movie that doesn’t quite make you want to shoot yourself upon exiting the theater.  He has more greatness in him.  I am certain of it.

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