Monday, November 9, 2009

DVD Review: Away We Go

Sam Mendes’ Away We Go feels like Jarmusch-lite…and I mean that as a compliment. The filmmakers invoke all the usual indie tropes (I have to admit when I popped the DVD in I was already groaning at the way the menu looked): folk musical score, chapters accompanied by title cards, John Krasiniski with a beard; however, beneath its seemingly rather annoying indie exterior lurks a whole other film filled with interesting meditations on parenting, being in love while having kids, and raising children altogether. This isn’t a film that condescends, as some critics have suggested, this is a film – that despite one grossly horrendous detour – evokes the whimsy of a Jarmusch film; particularly Stranger Than Paradise, another film about thirtysomethings who are geographically unattached looking for meaning in life…looking for home. I was all ready to hate on this movie, but it won me over, and it really is a smile-inducing, intelligent film.

The story is essentially a handful of vignettes where the two central characters Burt and Verona (John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph) head out on the road to meet friends and family, all while trying to figure out which location is the best for them to raise their soon-to-be-born girl. Some of the vignettes work exceptionally well, especially where Burt and Verona head to Montréal to meet with old college friends. I also quite liked the segment where Burt and Verona head to Miami to be with Burt’s brother (the always-good-to-see Paul Schneider) whose wife has just left him and their young daughter. There are some real moments of insight in these segments, and it’s these moments that make one forget about just how dreadful this film could have been.

One of the reasons for the potential awfulness is in the screenplay by Dave Eggers (all around great guy, but not one of my favorite authors) and his wife Vendella Vida, and their reliance on kooky supporting characters that are more caricature than anything else. Case in point: Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal. In the Phoenix vignette Burt and Verona head to Arizona to meet up with Verona’s old boss. The two are casual friends at best, and Janney’s performance is so wrong and hits all the wrong notes (she’s a daytime drink with an acid tongue) that it nearly derails the film. On the other end of the spectrum is the character L.N., one of those back-to-the-basics, new-agey mothers played by Gyllenhaal. It’s a good performance, even funny at times, but it just seems too broad for a film that is effective because of its contemplative, quiet nature.

I understand what Eggers, Vida, and director Mendes are doing here, and the statement they’re trying to make about the varieties of parents that are out there and how wrong they get this whole parenting thing. I guess this is where the film’s critics see it as being glib and smug, but I just felt these potshots were obvious, and didn’t fit with the mood of the rest of the movie.

And that mood is, as I said earlier, whimsical; however, it’s not cutesy for the sake of being cute (or hip, or indie, or kitsch, or whatever you want to call it). This is a film about real people – smart, self-employed and self-sustaining – who have real conversations about what the future holds. There are no Oscar-bait moments here (which is both shocking and a pleasant surprise for a film directed by Mendes), with over-the-top arguments; in fact, the wonderful thing about the film is the way the two characters – whether they’re really fighting, or just having a tiff – talk things out. So rare is it these days that you find a film where the characters don’t have to scream and shout to evoke emotion (or thought) from the audience.

A lot of that credit is due to the great performances by the film’s two leads. Krasinski remains one of the most intriguing TV-to-film prospects (let’s forget License to Wed for a moment) working today. His portrayal as Burt fooled me. Here’s a character that is so cheesy in his positive attitude that you can’t help but feel some sort of cynicism towards him and his avowed love (and he avows a lot) of Verona. However, there is a key moment in the Madison vignette (the one with Gyllenhaal) where he let’s his nice guy persona fall by the wayside and shows us a real person who isn’t just existing in some kind of 24/7 reverie. The other performance, and easily one of the best female performances of the year, is Maya Rudolph’s portrayal of Verona. She is the stable force throughout the film, and when Krasiniski’s Bert wants to take us down paths of unrequited love, cheesy soliloquies, and unrealistic dreams – Rudolph is always there to supply the cringe, the smirk, or the roll of the eyes. Verona is grounded, and Rudolph – who was so great with facial comedy on “Saturday Night Live” – is perfect for the role because she never tries to match Krasinki’s charm by one-upping him…she’s charming in her own, unique way; and that is why it is so easy for the viewer to accept the dynamic between the two. This feels like a real couple.

Away We Go is not without its faults, but with stellar lead performances; some beautiful, yet understated, cinematography and music; an ending (a shot of Burt and Verona through an open door with clear blue sky and water in front of them) that, sure may feel heavy handed (but I didn’t care by that point, like I said I was all in with this movie after the Madison segment was over), but made me smile with its ambiguity (a paradox, I know, but it’s a highly effective ending at evoking joy without resolving anything); and at a breezy 90 minutes it’s easily one of the better experiences I’ve had watching a movie this year.


  1. Enjoyed it, its one of those happy feel good movies, where not much goes wrong, and we get a happy ending.

  2. Best part of the review? Recognizing the indie trope of "John Krasiniski with a beard." Brilliant.

    Not a huge fan of Mendes or these types of indie films, but your review is good and makes it at least sound interesting.

  3. This film wears its indie tropes like goth kids wear eyeliner, but it's still worth watching because, as you say, Rudolph gives "easily one of the best female performances of the year" and they do feel like a real couple.

    Spoilers (kind of)

    The ending is indeed eye-rollingly heavy-handed. These two homeless people take how long before they decide to give a try to the amazing house on the water? COME FRIGGIN ON! But did it choke me up anyway? Uh, yeah. Because I'm a sucker.

  4. Film Connoisseur:

    Thanks for checking the review out. It is one of those movies that is harmless enough and makes you smile a lot while you're watching it.

  5. Troy:

    Yes...and all Tieryn and I kept saying throughout the movie is that he reminded us of Kyle.

  6. Jason:

    Exactly! There's nothing daringly original or cool about this movie (which is what I think most of these indie films strive for: originality and the cool factor), but there's just something to it that made me a believer by the end of the film. Those screen caps I threw on there are the moment when I was like "well I know how this is ending", but like you, I'm a sucker, and I was affected by it anyway. It was nice that there wasn't a wholly neat and tidy ending to the film.

    And man, Rudolph is just fantastic in this. I really wish some of the movie hadn't been ruined by its awful supporting performances.

    I'm just shocked that I liked a movie directed by Sam Mendes!

    Thanks for stopping by, Jason.

  7. Damn, how I disliked this movie (it was too vanilla for me to hate). But Maya Rudolph was EXCELLENT in it. Probably even nomination-noteworthy.

  8. Tony:

    Yeah, I know I said it was one of the best viewing experiences I've had this year (I think that says more about this year AND the lack of good movies that have made it out to Salem, OR), but I could be swayed either way on this...I just think I was so impressed with Rudolph's performance and the uncharacteristic restraint displayed by Mendes in the more "dramatic" moments that I was willing to give the film a pass on its truly awful moments (I'm thinking of the vignettes with Janney and Gyllenhaal).

    Thanks for stopping by, Tony.

  9. I'm not as positive about the film as you -- I thought they transitioned too quickly from the vignettes of their cluelessness juxtaposed against the kooky-but-equal delusion of their supposedly grown-up friends to suddenly a stable (mentally at least) couple placing all this pressure on them to help. Still, I very much enjoyed Rudolph and Krasinski, the former having not heretofore proven a noteworthy talent and the latter breaking away from his known image for a role that's good enough to warrant it. I couldn't stop laughing at his goofy, "please love me" puppy smile as he screamed the most foul obscenities at Rudolph because she told him to.

  10. Jake:

    I think my initial love of this film stemmed more from just being surprised by how much I liked it and found the performances endearing, rather than annoying indie cliches. You're right about Krasiniski's big, dopey smile throughout the scene you mention. The two leads are the best thing about the film. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.