Away We Go

Away We Go featured image

reviewed by Marc Glassman

Away We Go. Sam Mendes, director. Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, script. Ellen Kuras, cinematography. Starring: John Krasinski (Burt), Maya Rudolph (Verona), Allison Janney (Lily), Maggie Gyllenhall (LN), Catherine O’Hara (Gloria), Jeff Daniels (Jerry), Carmen Ejogo (Grace), Melanie Lynskey (Munch), Chris Messina (Tom), Jim Gaffigan (Lowell), Paul Schneider (Courtney) and Josh Hamilton (Roderick)

Burt and Verona are youngish and arty and terribly in love. When Verona gets pregnant, they assume that their lives won’t change much. After all, Burt’s parents live near by and neither of them have a 9 to 5 job. But Burt’s parents Gloria and Jerry, two rich and vaguely hippyish and sorta academic types, have a surprise for the couple—they’re moving to Europe one month before their grandchild is due.

Verona asks, “is there something wrong with us?” and Burt reassures her that nothing is amiss. The couple hit the road in that “Huck Finny” tradition to find family and a new home somewhere in America. And Away We Go—as scriptwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and director Sam Mendes take us on a satirical and somewhat sad reworking of that old chestnut, “whatever happened to the good ol’ USA?”

For, you see, Burt and Verona constitute a sanctified couple, blessed with humility and clear sight. We know that because they maintain a stance of being purported “losers” throughout their journey, while all those they encounter are obviously the deluded ones. On the road, they meet a snobby cultish duo living the good life in academe (LN and Roderick), an over bearing and several decibels too loud career woman and mother (Lily), a tragic and beautiful couple who are raising a “rainbow” family because they can’t have kids of their own (Munch and Tom), Verona’s sister who can’t find a real man (Grace) and Burt’s brother (Courtney), who has lost his wife and will have to be a solo parent for their daughter. None of these people measure up to Burt and Verona, who in a saintly manner, assess them and try to treat them well.

This sanctimonious tone mars what could have been a truly wonderful adult comedy about being parents in contemporary America. Sam Mendes has hopefully completed a trilogy about American couples, begun with American Beauty and continued with Revolutionary Road, in this less overwrought film.

The satire and the tragedy in the first two films revolved around typical couples who had bought into the American Dream–Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning in Mendes’ multiple Academy Award winning debut work (Beauty) and Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet in his more recent entry into the Oscar sweepstakes (Road). Here, Burt and Verona have opted out—but that has left Mendes the opportunity to concentrate on other victims of delusional America. Reduced to cameos, though, few of the characters can rise above the level of stereotype.

The exceptions are played by a couple of gifted actors, Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhall. Janney is spot on as Lily, Verona’s former boss, who gives new meaning to the phrase “over-the-top.” It’s as if she has no censor at all; Janney talks very, very loudly about women’s breasts (ruined by feeding babies), her disappointing children (the girl is a lesbian and the boy a flop) and sad sack husband (don’t ask!). Just as hilarious is Gyllenhall, who zones right into her performance as LN (formerly Ellen), a “gender” lit professor who is against strollers (they push babies away) and in favour of having sex in front of her children (why deny them the knowledge and “pleasure”?).

Mendes, who is a legendarily gifted theatre director, pays attention to the author’s vision when he makes films. It’s a rare quality in cinema and should be praised. Certainly American Beauty owes much to the writing of Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) and Revolutionary Road is clearly indebted to its novelist Richard Yates. Here, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida are the true source of much of the film.

Eggers and Vida are a gifted and highly admired couple, who have worked as (respectively) publisher and editor of The Believer, a brilliant literary magazine and organizers of “826 Valencia,” an institution that socializes edgy disadvantaged kids by teaching them writing. Eggers is the founding editor of McSweeney’s, the coolest and most experimental journal in North America and the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” a best selling memoir of growing up after the death of his parents. Vida, too, is a highly regarded novelist.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Burt and Verona as less successful versions of Eggers and Vida. Both are simultaneously loveable and off-putting. You love the way Burt and Verona interact—they’re so loving and want the best for their unborn child. And yet—despite Burt’s romantic obsession with being a great dad—sometimes the duo make you want to scream.

But, hey! That’s OK. Burt and Verona and Eggers and Vida and Mendes and (his real life wife) Winslet will understand. After all, you’re not as good as them—and they know it.

Should you see this movie? Yes, but “be prepared to eat ‘umble pie afterwards, dearie.”

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