Friday, June 12, 2009
Director Sam Mendes is best known for his savage portraits of marriages falling apart – "American Beauty" and last year's "Revolutionary Road." So "Away We Go" (opening June 12 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) arrives as something of a surprise and an antidote to those earlier works.
"Away We Go" is a search for home – both in a literal and figurative sense. It's also like a comic journey out of hell for a young couple about to have their first child. Burt ("The Office's" John Krasinski) and Verona ("Saturday Night Live's" Maya Rudolph) are a laid back, unmarried couple that find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. They're happy but concerned about whether or not they will be good parents, and worry about where and how to raise their child. The first stop is to visit Burt's parents (the hilariously self-absorbed Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) who on the eve of their grandchild's birth plan to move out of the country. Next up is Verona's former boss (Alison Janney) whose husband and kids seem rather comatose compared to her loud and extroverted personality. Then comes the inner circle of hell where we find John's old childhood friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a new age nightmare of a parent who refuses to use a stroller because it's pushing her child away from her. Burt and Verona flee this hell and finally start moving toward a kinder, gentler circle of parenting when they hook up with old college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), who have a warm loving home filled with adopted kids since they cannot have kids of their own. Inspired by this truly loving family, Burt and Verona set off to visit the empty house of Verona's late parents and to see if they can find a little piece of heaven for themselves.
This film was a lovely surprise. Not only was the tone different from Mendes' other works but the film itself felt like the first work of a young filmmaker rather than a project from a Hollywood veteran. There's a pleasing indie feel to the film, a refreshing low budgetness and simplicity. It's not only an antidote to the dysfunctional marriages at the center of Mendes' other films but it's an antidote to the hysterical summer romantic comedies. Burt and Verona are the relatively calm center of the comic storm that swirls around them.
Their journey begins with people that we just want to run from. The discomfort level is especially high with the preachy, smugly superior mother played by Gyllenhaal. She is so pretentious that you just want to slap her and rip her children away. So for more than half the film we, like Burt and Verona, are stuck with people we don't really like, and that may annoy some viewers. But writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida draw these characters with such sharp, telling strokes that we're fascinated by them, like driving by a car crash and not being able to look away. The writers, who are married themselves, find humor in their flawed characters. And just when we think we can't take it any more, the writers introduce us to a loving, serene family. But even that sweet brood has a bittersweet edge since the wife has suffered a series of miscarriages and desperately wants to have a baby of her own. Eggers and Vida strike a nice balance between the hopeful aspirations of the young couple and the real world. The film is not fueled by blind optimism or Pollyanna cheeriness but there is a definite and maybe a little desperate sense of hope that happiness can be found.
In defining a sense of home, the filmmakers also define what it means to love someone and what you would do to show your love. The point at which the film completely won me over was when Verona recounts a tale about a fruitless tree her father had and the silly extremes his wife and daughters went to make him think it could bear fruit. That scene had such sweet simplicity, and provided with humor and grace a perfect example of what home and love can mean.
TV stars Krasinski and Rudolph prove to be appealing big screen talents. Krasinski's Burt is almost too attentive and too understanding. There's even a funny scene in which Verona points out that he never gets mad or raises his voice. He may be a bit of a loser in society's eyes because he hasn't accumulated a lot of material things but Krasinski never plays him as a loser, just as someone trying to do the best he can. Rudolph sheds her more over-the-top "SNL" comic styling to create a character of genuine warmth, depth, and vulnerability. But it's the supporting cast here that steals the show. Gyllenhaal deserves some sort of award for making one of the most grating characters to hit the screen. O'Hara and Daniels also shine as does Janney.
"Away We Go" (rated R for language and some sexual content) is a surprising summer comedy. It delivered something warmer and sweeter than I expected from Sam Mendes.
Companion viewing: "American Beauty," "Made for Each Other," "Sherry Baby"