Sunday, June 21, 2009

In Theaters: "Away We Go"

Seldom has a filmmaker done so complete a 180-turn, in terms of subject matter and tone, as quickly as Sam Mendes has with Away We Go. His previous film, the studied, difficult suburban drama Revolutionary Road, was no doubt a tough picture to make; some would argue it is an equally tough picture to watch. I admired the film without buying all the way into it—it is, for the most part, immaculately done (the cinematography and production design are stunning), with moments of great power. But there’s something overwrought about the entire endeavor, as if everything onscreen has been so carefully prepared and composed that the genuine passion and life has been sucked out of the frame.

There’s none of that in Away We Go, a loose, freewheelingly intimate seriocomic drama penned by novelist Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and his wife Vendela Vida. It is probably not an inconsiderable leap to assume that Dave and Vendela put at least some of themselves into protagonists Burt and Verona, and I’m not just talking about the similarity of their Christian names. Their dialogue is full of the shorthand and easy interactions of a long-time couple; this is the kind of relationship where a meandering “Still…” is a perfectly acceptable end of a conversation.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a cohabitating but unmarried couple who are forced to reevaluate their lives when Verona gets pregnant (the opening scene, in which they discover this bit of information, has one of the great hard-cuts to title that I’ve ever seen). They live comfortably enough in Colorado to be close to Burt’s parents, but when that pair announces they’re moving to Belgium for two years (a month before their granddaughter’s birth, no less), Burt and Verona suddenly find themselves untethered. They decide to search for a new place to plant their flag, and work up a quick list of places where they might find solace with friends and relatives.

The resulting five-stop journey is episodic in nature, which is both the film’s blessing and its curse. It works because it gives the admittedly muted narrative a bit of momentum; the trouble is that a couple of the vignettes don’t quite work, or at least don’t work on the same level as the rest of the film. In Arizona, they visit Verona’s former colleague, a trashy mom of two played by Allison Janney; I’m normally a fan of her work, but Mendes needed to pull her way back. Her portrait of a cheerful vulgarian is too broad a caricature to fit in with the low-key realism of the film—it throws the tone all out of whack. Same goes for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ultra-bohemian “alternative parenting” guru; it’s tough to resist any scene that includes the phrase “In the sea horse community,” and there are certainly laughs to be had in her sequence. But they’re easy jokes, and some of them are cheap at that.

Those bits don’t derail the picture, however; even when things get too cartoony, we’re anchored by the spot-on reactions of Krasinski and Rudolph. They’re quite good together, sharing nearly every scene and effortlessly projecting a laid-back, lived-in, agreeable charm. As exhibited weekly on The Office, Krasinski’s comic timing is near-flawless; he’s amiably funny throughout the film, but particularly in the early scene with his parents (of her new hairstyle, he deadpans, “I don’t think it makes you look crazy at all…”). Rudolph is a calm, soft, natural presence, grounded and immediately likable. Together, they have a disarming casualness and a marvelously recognizable “you and me against the world” strength.

As their journey continues (aided greatly by the music of Alexi Murdoch, whose songs give the movie the same kind of extra weight that Elliot Smith’s did in Good Will Hunting), the stakes are quietly raised. There is a strange but beautifully emotional scene, quite unexpected, with their college friends (admirably underplayed by Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), while an unforeseen emergency with Burt’s brother (a terrific Paul Schneider) pulls the film to an unhurried conclusion. Mendes’ touch is nimble here, less stylized than any of his previous work—though that’s not to say that it isn’t beautifully shot by the skilled cinematographer Ellen Kuras (a frequent collaborator of Michel Gondry and Spike Lee). But it doesn’t feel as artfully pre-arranged as Revolutionary Road or (for all of my admiration of it) American Beauty. It kind of shambles along agreeably until it arrives at its closing scenes, which are, in their own tranquil way, sheer perfection. Away We Go is an uneven film, but a lovely one nonetheless.

"Away We Go" is currently playing in limited release.

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