Away We Go (2009) dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Alison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal
After four films Sam Mendes, whose career seems to be dipped lower into the overwrought, overly dramatized Scott Rudin-type extravaganzas, “Away We Go” seems a conscious attempt of the man to free himself with an easy-going freeform breezy story.
Mendes employs some new different creative partners more versed in this kind of material, Michel Gondry's DOP Ellen Kuras, Sofia Coppola's editor Sarah Flack, newbie Alex Murdoch as composer, filling in for the usual Thomas Newman. The valiant effort just doesn't work though, and a palpable lack of conflict fails to generate significant emotional investment.
Inspired seemingly by the life experiences of the film’s screenwriter couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, “Away We Go” follows the journey of Burt and Verona (Krasinski and Rudolph) who are six months into their first pregnancy. After they discover Burt’s parents will be moving away to Belgium for 2 years, they're left with a feeling of homelessness. And so, on a whim, they embark on a roadtrip across the country, and even into Canada, to find their new home.
They test out a number of places by visiting some old friends and relatives around the country. No one is the same though since when Burt and Verona last saw them. Verona’s friend in Phoenix turns out to be an obnoxious self-loathing bitch, Burt’s childhood friend in Madison WI is a flaky hippie extremist, and Burt's brother's wife has just left him and their child alone. Each of these steps and misadventures allows them to discover their true home, which fills the void missing in their relationship.
Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski are perhaps cast too well. Rudolph, cute as a button with her freckles and six months prego belly, and Krasinski is basically Jim from The Office, charming as hell, the perfect husband, understanding, witty, good looking and grounded beyond belief.
So what’s wrong with these two? Nothing. And therein lies the problem. There’s very little to discover in Burt and Verona. They are the perfect couple, never bickering (the screenwriters even reference this in the dialogue), seemingly not hard up for money considering the time off work both are taking for the journey, and there's very little at stake. Burt and Verona need to be threatened by some external force, or even an internal personality or emotional conflict to overcome. Egger and Vida make it so easy for these two it becomes a journey of self-indulgence.
And so every quirky adventure seems to distract from the fact there is no emotional foundation for the story. It’s an assembly line of oddball characters introduced at each stop, written with the feeling they've been exported from other scripts: Burt’s wacky aloof parents played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, Alison Janney’s loud-mouthed irresponsible crack pot mother character Lily, and Maggie Gyllahaal/Josh Hamilton’s hippie eccentrics are repetitive gag generators. And it's the same joke-punchline execution from ‘the Office”: 1) show someone saying something inappropriate 2) cut to Krasinski/Rudolph silently reacting.
And so without a genuine foundation of character goals, all the Sundance indie-charm jumps out at us as trying too hard. The precious acoustic guitar music, second-hand store costuming, even the scratchy handdrawn poster feels uninspired and played out.
It’s a shame. Krasinski and Rudolph are so likeable, and Melanie Lynsky’s somber pole dancing, which becomes the backdrop for Chris Messina’s character’s dramatic strip club confession is a great scene.
Sam Mendes who so boldly jumped out of the gate in filmmaking seems to have lost his voice. He'll get it back, but "Away We Go" is not it.