Maybe it’s because I have been unwittingly absorbing the almost unanimously lackadaisical responses to Sam Mendes’ latest film Away We Go, but the more I think about my initial reactions upon leaving the theater, the more I have reason to question why this new movie bears the stamp of sounding “unimportant” and “lightweight,” particularly when compared to previous Mendes juggernauts like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. To be honest, there were moments during this film when I was on the verge of tears, perhaps not in spite of but because of the fact that it seemed so tossed-off and unimportant–it is a movie that showcases adults who act like true adults (in that they are uncertain of the validity of their lifestyle choices as compared to those of their peers), and furthermore does so in a whimsical fashion that almost but not quite reflects the amount of importance one fears one’s life and relationships really have, overall. Once I acknowledged the film’s deliberate minor key, I was more able to come to terms with the surprisingly strong emotional response I had, and the more I think about it, the more I think Mendes is onto something different and more pure than what he has done in the past.
Mendes is of course a world-famous Oscar-winning director who has the kind of considerable clout to make a movie like this, but he is far from the only world-class creative mind steering the ship. The film is co-written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, whose literary credentials as a married couple are as far as I know unmatched. I already came into the movie being a big fan of Eggers, particularly his poignant memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and I was interested to see if his engaging, elliptical wordplay would be apparent in the movie’s dialogue (I will have another opportunity to gauge this when his adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are comes out later this year). I am not as familiar with Vida, who along with Eggers sort of runs the show at the literary magazine McSweeney’s, but the fact that the both of them collaborated on a script that happened to be about two good-natured but dissatisfied thirtysomethings in a stable, healthy relationship raised in me the sort of interest that any good art with shades of autobiography is likely to have.
The movie is unique in that respect: unlike, say, Revolutionary Road, we never get the sense that Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) lead meaningless lives devoid of any real love or compassion for each other; on the contrary, one of the goals of Away We Go is to showcase the myriad ways in which these two, forced into reevaluating their cozy but slackerish lifestyles due to an oncoming baby, perform actions that are invested with meaning and consequence that aren’t apparent to anyone but the viewer. In this sense, it is a genuine a “love” story as one I can think of, with the two appealing leads conveying shared tics and gestures that showcase a kind of romantic relationship that seems inevitable and permanent, and even the occasional arguments they have are just that: no attempt at phony melodrama, their closeness is a foregone conclusion. Away We Go is smarter, more accurate, and more genuinely romantic than any romantic comedy I can think of, ever.
So Away We Go is worth seeing mainly for the many delightful moments where Krasinski and Rudolph seem to be having fun with the concept of their relationship. In typical Eggers fashion, they speak in ways that seem to invert the ways in which one expects typical longtime companions would sound, and yet they are still obviously meant for each other. Knowing what I know about the major players of this movie, I have to wonder if Eggers and Vida are the luckiest couple in the world: they get to basically write and collaborate on art that essentially identifies itself as an exchange of vows in chrysalis. And they get paid for doing this. I can’t imagine anything more blissful.
Before that tangent takes me any further, a few plot details may be in order, although the film is clearly meant to be episodic in nature and there is no central conflict, per se. Burt and Verona, as stated before, are in a committed relationship and have been indefinitely, although Verona refuses to actually marry Burt. Burt works in insurance, and Verona is a medical illustrator, and both of them live in quasi-bliss in a ramshackle hut close to Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara). In the opening scene, Burt detects that Verona is pregnant (in a very funny scene I will not describe here), and upon finding out that the parents plan to leave the country before the baby is born, they decide that it may finally be time for them to clean up their act and find a respectable place to live elsewhere, as neither of their jobs require their physical presences. The rest of the movie consists of the duo traveling the country (making a quick stop in Montreal), each visit punctuated by a family or couple who remind Burt and Verona of their duties and aspirations as potential parents.
For the most part, the models of parenthood that ensue just happen to illustrate the kinds of tropes Burt and Verona would like to avoid. I’ll give a quick list here, which I think won’t ruin anything important: they start by heading off to Phoenix to visit Verona’s sister (Carmen Ejogo) as well as Verona’s old friend Lily (Allison Janney), who turns out to be the kind of unstable and unhappy lush of a parent that Burt and Verona dread becoming. The two then travel to Madison to meet up with art professor LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the film’s most problematic character, who turns out to be the sort of loathsome cartoon hippy-dippy professor archetype that one thinks would have died in the 60s. After that debacle of a trip, they travel to the aforementioned Montreal to meet with another set of college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynsky), who for a while seem like the ideal couple, except that they have five adopted kids and are unable to conceive of their own. Finally, they make an emergency trip to Miami to visit Burt’s brother, newly estranged and dealing with the consequences of being a single dad.
As to be expected in a movie that could have existed more or less in discrete 25-minute episodes, there are moments in the movie that are far more effective than others. In particular, the scenes with Gyllenhaal’s clearly unbalanced, stroller-hating, breastfeeding professor are clearly the movie’s nadir, as it quickly becomes apparent that there is something severely wrong with her and her family in a way that the film doesn’t really want to interrogate too thoroughly (it is strongly suggested that Gyllenhaal is sexually abusing her kids, but Burt and Verona don’t seem to press the issue because it seems consistent with her other eccentricities). Gyllenhaal, who is usually good, doesn’t really make a convincing college professor, nor does she pull off the ick-factor of later scenes. Janney is good though, even as her character is in a way even most sad and desperate of them all: Janney is clearly capable of relishing those one-liners, which is one reason why she was by far the best part of Juno. In the end, though, it comes down to the appeal of the two leads, and Krasinski and Rudolph have never been better or more convincing in my opinion. Rudolph’s character is obviously the more grumpy and taciturn of the two, and Krasinski’s affability and goofiness provides an ideal and enjoyable counterpoint. Perhaps Eggers and Vida’s hardest job was convincing us that these two can have obvious personality differences while still remaining clearly in love with each other; Krasinski and Rudolph’s intelligence and professionalism realize the writers’ ambitions in ways that I imagine even they weren’t capable of detecting. What’s more, they both look convincing as normal, professional American adults (I dig Krasinski’s DFW look in particular, which makes sense given his next project), and not as enormously attractive actors trying to pull off the “normal people” look (again, see Revolutionary Road).
If I could make one brief suggestion, I would implore you to ignore critics who say that Away We Go is essentially aimless, that the characters are too arch and seem to lack common sense, and that parts of it are hackneyed in ways we would never expect from today’s arch-ironic movie marketplace. Although these are all genuine complaints, they don’t take away from the fact that there is something real going on under here that we don’t generally see in movies of this ilk: that is, convincing displays of codependence that are perceivably stable, juxtaposed with increasingly fractured feelings about life, relationships, and one’s ability to adequately communicate feeling when it can all seem so trite. Away We Go is sort of timeless as an artifact of romance set against an uncaring world, even as we feel the need to not care or spurn the charms of the leads as the movie progresses. If you can overwhelm such urges, the end of the movie may seem as beautiful to you as it seemed to me, even as I was able to recognize how overblown and syrupy it could have seen had I allowed cynicism to take hold. Eggers, Vida and Mendes have the power to subvert your predilection to mock the genuine expressions of honesty and affection, if you give them the chance. I did, which is perhaps why I see something major underlyng a movie that seems to be marketing itself as something less than that.
This movie may be more important than you think. My advice: see it with someone you love, if you can.