A film review by Craig J. Koban
AWAY WE GO
2009, R, 97 mins.
2009, R, 97 mins.
Burt: John Krasinski / Verona: Maya Rudolph / Gloria: Catherine
O’Hara / Jerry: Jeff Daniels / Lily: Allison Janney / LN:
Maggie Gyllenhaal / Munch: Melanie Lynskey
"The joys of parents are secret, and so are their grieves and fears."
Sam Mendes’ AWAY WE GO is a
simple, but strong, film that is brilliant for how it kind of sneaks up on
you and completely defies your expectations.
It contains many elements of so many other countless stock genres
(it’s part comedy, part drama, part sly social satire,
and part road trip flick), but the resulting film never feels
conventional or predictable. There
is a wonderful exploratory vibe through it as it takes its
unusually sharp witted and well-drawn characters on a physical and
emotional journey. That, and
it has a near pitch-perfect sense of understating in its scenes for
maximum dramatic effect and payoff.
It’s best achievement is perhaps that Mendes infuses in his
characters a remarkable depth and warm sincerity, which makes their own
tumultuous journey into adult and parenthood all the more surprisingly
moving and heartfelt. Like
other recent indie darlings, like JUNO and LITTLE
MISS SUNSHINE, AWAY WE GO is a small and unassuming film in
stature, but substantially larger in spirit and genuine sentiment.
This may be one of Mendes most atypical films to date. He has certainly ascended to the upper echelon of the directorial elite and has demonstrated time and time again his breadth and variety as a filmmaker. He has made a truly compelling and thoughtful war film (in 2005’s dreadfully undervalued JARHEAD), a graphic novel adaptation/gangster film (in 2003’s exemplary crafted ROAD TO PERDITION), a corrosive and darkly acerbic suburban family satire (1999’s Oscar winning AMERICAN BEAUTY) and made a deeply fatalistic and harshly honest dissection of the myth of the middle class American dream (last year’s REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2008).
AWAY WE GO is another stab at
the family unit for Mendes, which I guess gives it a cursory similarity to
AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but its overall tone is far less
miserable and desolate. As
much as any other of his films, AWAY WE GO showcases what a master Mendes
is at observing and reporting on the human condition, but this time he
goes for a much more upbeat and jovial tone with sprinkles of melancholy
and sadness that do not feel too saccharine or force fed.
What really makes this a departure for the typically hard-edged
Mendes is that it’s about nice people that are nice to
each other that are trying to find a nice place in the world to
raise their child-to-be. AWAY
WE GO maintains such a terrific congeniality and effervescent disposition
that it’s hard not to label it as an instant, feel-good charmer.
Much like what its characters do during its story, watching AWAY WE
GO is like taking a pleasant journey with many colorful and unexpected pit
The film also contains two of
the most surprising break-out performances of 2009 by two of the most
unlikely talents: SNL’s Maya Rudolph and THE OFFICE’s John Krasinski, the
latter whom I’ve only seen in the somewhat problematic screwball comedy LEATHERHEADS
and the former I have only be exposed to on her not-ready-for-prime-time
TV gig. Part of the film’s
superb sense of discovery is in seeing how Mendes shreds these performers
of their TV performance habits and empowers them create soulful and fully
realized characters that are easy to like and admire.
What’s most endearing – and easy to overlook – is how
effortlessly the two inhabit characters that could have easily been victim
to sitcom level clichés; they instead make them feel natural and alive. These are people that we have seen I thousands of films
before: thirtysomethings that still feel like teenagers that, despite
their relative book smarts and education, are experiencing a difficult and
emotionally taxing transition into becoming parents and adults in general.
Lesser actors could have played these roles on exasperating
auto-pilot, but Krasinski and Rudolph makes these quirky personas feel
palpable all throughout AWAY WE GO: we never once doubt, not for one
second, that they are not in love or a tangible couple.
The two of them together harness some of the finest chemistry of
any on-screen pair this year, and there is an astonishing level of droll
sophistication the screenplay gives them.
Their dialogue exchanges have a intelligent, colorful and amusingly
neurotic edge, which helps the film elevate far, far away from other
wasteful genre efforts.
The film opens by introducing
us to the inseparable and mutually devoted pair: Burt Farlander (Krasiniski)
and his lover, Verona De Tessant (Rudolph) as they both discover that she
is pregnant in one of the most offbeat and funny sex scenes in a long time
(let’s just say that Burt “knows” she is pregnant for how one vital
part of her anatomy tastes differently).
Even though they are energetic and excited to bring a child into
the world, the pair seem barely able to look after themselves:
They have very little money,
have a drab and dreary little house in Connecticut that has cardboard in
the windows and a shocking lack of heat, and seem somewhat unsure of
themselves as parents. They
are essentially living a sort of bohemian college lifestyle of
improvisation, but even Verona begins to realize that they need to make
some radical changes for the better: “We don’t live like grown-ups,”
she depressingly muses at one point. No kidding.
From this point they decide to
make amends for the better: They hatch a plan to travel around North
America in search of the finest place and best atmosphere to settle down
and raise their child. Their
spiritual trek begins back home with Burt's parents (played in brief, but
side-splitting cameos by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), but just
when they think that they will open up welcoming arms with their news of
becoming grandparents, they shock Burt and Verona by telling them that
they are fulfilling a life promise to themselves…and are abruptly
moving to Antwerp for two years.
Burt is devastated that his mother and father will not be around
for his child’s birth, but seeing these tragically self-absorbed and
pompous buffoons behave, perhaps the best place would not be near
Somewhat downtrodden, Burt and
Verona now decide to visit other friends (Verona’s parents are not an
option because they are both dead) in places ranging from Phoenix, Tucson,
Madison, Montreal and finally a deeply personal stop in Miami.
Like many road trip films, the people they encounter are all
eclectic, offbeat, and crazy in one form or another.
Two sets of couples are arguably the least well adjusted of
the bunch: While in Phoenix
Verona visits a past employer named Lily (a toxically hilarious and
ferociously unhinged Allison Janney; she’s never been better) and her
husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan). Lily,
to be frank, is an alcoholic and obliviously mean-spirited presence, who
lacks any level of self-control or moderation with both her drinking
habits or the things she says to her children.
Less verbal offensive, but equally unsavory, is Burt’s childhood
friend in Madison named Ellen (played in a brilliantly loopy performance
by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who now has pretentiously changed her name to
“LN” and has become a militant feminist with a ditzy flower-child
sensibility. She breast-feeds
both children (even when one appears to be four or five-years-old) and she
never allows strollers in her home (“I love my babies," she states,
“So why would I want to push them away?”).
After a disastrous supper with her and her even more obnoxious
husband (who looks like a hippie-religious zealot), Burt and Verona
abruptly leave, but not until he can and taunt and tempt LN’s child with
a ride in a…well…you know.
I have not laughed harder during a scene all year.
The last two stops of Burt and
Verona's trip are the most heartrending and distressing.
The couple heads north of the border to Montreal where they hook
back up with two college friends named Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and
Melanie Lynskey) who occupy two deeply tragic figures to Burt and Verona
in the sense that they desperately try to maintain outward facades of
being happy and adjusted while inside they are damaged goods (revealed in
a scene of authentic sadness). The
last leg of Burt and Verona’s trip culminates in Miami with Burt’s
brother, whose wife has just abruptly left him, which leaves Burt and
Verona with some nagging questions about the longevity of their own
relationship. The film
reaches a moment of soft-spoken power when the pair discusses these
painful uncertainties. After
dealing with their own insecurities the couple finally decides to confront
the memories of Verona’s deceased parents, who were taken away from her
when she was 22.
I loved how AWAY WE GO does
not condescend to its viewers by placing Burt and Verona in contrived
situations that seem recycled from dozens of other banal road trip films.
The film is as smart and it is disarming for how frequently
hysterical it is (a recurring gag involving Burt stressing Verona enough
with harsh words to increase her fetus’ heart rate is uproarious), but
also for how it finds a sobering heartbeat in its meaningful themes.
At the core of the film is a motif that these intelligent and
independent souls have to confront their own somewhat misguided views of
themselves and how they fit into the world.
Their journey celebrates the notion of the importance of becoming
parents, but also with dealing with the somewhat alarming and stressful
implications of what becoming parents really means.
Traveling high and low and observing all of the couples that Burt
and Verona come across is almost initially taken as a form of window
shopping for them (they are trying find the best and most appropriate
environment for a child to live), but there is a growing disillusionment
with the process when they begin to slowly realize that there is not a
truly well-adjusted setting in the bunch.
The location of where to raise a child almost becomes
secondary to how the couple will find it within themselves to change.
That’s what becoming paternal figures is all about.
For these reasons, Sam
Mendes’ AWAY WE GO is a quietly transcendent comedy-drama.
The director forgoes any stylistic flourishes that have permeated
his past lavish efforts and instead shoots AWAY WE GO with an unfussy and
unpretentious economy. These
precise choices also allow for the thoughtful script to come to the
forefront; kudos needs to be given to the lyrical and compassionate
screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who give all of their
characters a tender depth of feeling and dimensionality (which is mostly
attributed to the fact that they are novelists).
Perhaps most crucial to the success of the film is that we have
Rudolph (so sweet, serene, and effectively understated in her revelatory
work here) and Krasinski (matching a child-like whimsicality and carefree
energy with a deeply nurturing and faithful protective figure that will
always look over his wife’s best interest above all others), who combine
to produce two of the most tender, good-natured, fascinating, and
believable screen couples of 2009. AWAY
WE GO is another unqualified triumph for the gifted auteur in Mendes, but
it is really Krasinski and Rudolph’s film that euphorically stand
out. They are magic together on screen.