Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Film Review: Away We Go

Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes
Released June 12, 2009

Sam Mendes has only made four films to date, and they have been heavy-handed dramas (Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) often-twinged with a wicked sense of humor (American Beauty, Jarhead). He’s taken a three-year break between each of those, finely honing his very carefully put-together films. His fifth film comes only months after “Revolutionary Road,” and it’s a starkly different movie from the rest of his filmography. “Away We Go” is a simple story about two people who head on the road in search of the perfect family after discovering they’re going to have a baby. Mendes has focused in on couples before in “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road,” but never has he so clearly presented the characters they meet through their eyes.

Bart and Verona are quiet, unassuming people who live their lives without much flair but also without really interacting extensively with other people. Bart and Verona’s cross-country exploration is a search for the kind of world the couple would like to live in, since they exist in a very solitary sort of bubble, and they realize they should know what’s out there so that their child can be prepared for the world. Bart and Verona know each other well, but they’re still very prone to discover things about themselves along their journey as they encounter a wide variety of parental and family units. The subtle chemistry between Bart and Verona is the film’s driving heart, but there’s so much the film does right.

A fellow critic remarked that the film contains every independent film cliché as well as every family cliché. I cite that as a major strength for the film, in that it covers so much ground and allows Bart and Verona to see every possible future themselves through the lens of some wonderfully entertaining characters. The flow of actors goes from good to great, featuring Allison Janney as a tireless wacko, Maggie Gyllenhaal as an even crazier alternative-lifestyle mother, Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey as a functional couple, and Paul Schneider as a desolate father whose wife has left him. Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels ever stop by to play Bart’s off-kilter parents. The cast is so strong, and each of the characters are so richly developed despite appearing on screen for such a limited time.

The supporting cast is stellar, but the stars of the film are equally tremendous. John Kraskinski, who appears weekly as sweet prankmaster Jim Halpert on “The Office,” sheds Jim’s overconfidence and need to cause trouble and embodies an entirely sentimental Bart, who gets exciting in the least apparent of ways and, despite his own hang-ups, does everything he can to support his pregnant girlfriend. Krasinski proves that he’s made of more than just “The Office,” and watching the comedy series after seeing the movie proves that Krasinski has in fact stepped out of his shell, and succeeded gloriously in the process. Maya Rudolph gets a similar opportunity to abandon her comedic upbringing, leaping far away from her “Saturday Night Live” stint and her role in 2006’s “Idiocracy” to play a mild-mannered woman who can crack jokes without stealing attention from showier players. Verona accepts things as they happen, and Rudolph is marvelously gracious in her silent reactions. The chemistry between Krasinski and Rudolph is unspoken, but it feels just right for Bart and Verona.

The film does have a decidedly independent feel, but that takes the pressure off of Mendes, who usually infuses his films with serious music and lavish sets and cinematography. Simple titles and a smart script peppered with fantastic actors in small parts makes for a terrific experience that can leave an unsuspecting viewer extremely surprised and satisfied. “Away We Go” defines its story in its title, and it’s a magnificent adventure that doesn’t try too hard to proclaim itself. Mendes knows how to make a stinging drama, but he’s also capable of a quirky dramedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously and still packs a delightful punch.



Hal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hal said...


I recently saw this movie and found it quite enjoyable. I think it fits into a small class of movies that delve deeply and insightfully into a single relationship. In this way it is similar to (500) Days of Summer, while being vastly different in other ways. Relationships are quite complicated and this movie reflects that well. It focuses on the learning process that takes place every day in a good relationship. I hope John Krasinski continues to take serious movie roles.

Movies with Abe said...

Well said, Hal! Glad you liked the film. As you may or may not know, I got a free shirt for the film at the press screening I went to in Boston. Definitely a great film, and you may want to check out "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" for another great dramatic performance from John Krasinski, who also directed the movie. It's not nearly as good, unfortunately, but still worth a look.