Just six months after introducing us to one of the most unlikable and miserable movie couples viewers had ever seen in Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes takes us on a little detour from his usual style/genre and allows us to meet one of the most likable on-screen pairings in recent years with Away We Go.
TV’s John Krasinski is the amiable goof-ball and insurance-futures’ salesman Burt and SNL alum Maya Rudolph (in a quietly revelatory performance built on her gift of perfectly timed facial expressions) is his long-time girlfriend Verona who does illustrations for medical textbooks. Suddenly they find themselves pregnant and searching for a real home in this semi-autobiographical tale from scribes Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The pair, untethered to their current situations, decide to travel all over North America visiting family and friends so that they might find that perfect spot to lay down roots. Fans of Eggers’ books should be pleased that the screenplay is imbued with his popular brand of sharp humor mixed with diluted sentimentality. The tale of these two thirty-somethings trying to do the right thing not only for themselves but for their daughter-to-be is filled with humor, warmth and a subdued pathos that allows us to relate to the both the chaos around the characters and their desire to shield their baby from it.
Under Mendes surprisingly laid-back director’s hand, the material and the performances rise above the clichés of the “she’s having a baby!” sub-genre of dramedies while successfully interweaving elements of “discovering yourself on a road trip” indie flicks. Episodic and sometimes meandering in nature, the film’s acts range from laugh-out-loud hilarious (including a scene-stealing Allison Janney making a bid for worst mother of the year in grand comedic style) to laughably absurd (witness Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-righteous alterna-mom with an unfounded hatred towards strollers) to unexpectedly poignant (in an unexpected side-trip to Miami to help Burt’s brother through a crisis). You won’t find any screamingly awful delivery room scenes here, and while there is some semi-crude sexual humor, it’s reality-based instead of raunchy and never overshadows the film’s heart.
As with any Mendes’ production, the cinematography (this time from Ellen Kuras) is artistically sound and serves as the perfect place for Mendes to paint his details. When the director uses a steady tracking shot moving through the passengers on a plane in mid-flight to focus in on the sun’s hazy golden light coming through the windows highlighting the faces of our two stars sitting side-by-side, you can see Burt and Verona unified in a yearning pensive loneliness that makes you instantly root for their success. The promise of that scene is wonderfully fulfilled in the closing act (the details of which I will not divulge) which is probably the most hopeful denouement — beautifully understated and with minimal dialogue — you will ever find in a Mendes’ film. As with anything in life, even in the most hopeful of atmospheres there is still some uncertainty, but if we’re lucky, we’ll see the talented Maya Rudolph in more lead roles and Sam Mendes will take time for more pleasant detours such as this.