Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Film review: Engaging 'Away We Go' marks advance for Mendes

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski in Away We Go.

By John Thomason

Has Sam Mendes turned into an old softie?

The proficient director has earned the reputation, perhaps unfairly, as a chronicler of suburban discontent and alienation, thanks to the breakthrough success of American Beauty and last year’s Revolutionary Road, a histrionic study of a couple’s picket-fence-stifled disintegration.

Like Revolutionary Road’s subtler, inverted flipside, Mendes’ Away We Go also features two people trying to make it in their relationship, but this time, for his uprooted, thirtysomething travelers, suburbia signals comfort, not imprisonment. A baby on the way suggests reinforced hopes, not metastasized fractures. And unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s chair-throwing tantrums, Away We Go’s John Krasinski is incapable of erupting at his significant other, only raising his voice in a faux angry experiment to raise his pregnant girlfriend’s heart rate.

This isn’t to say that Away We Go, penned by cult writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, is a uniformly better film – just that it exists in more of a real world than Mendes’ previous stylized explorations of the American landscape. This has a lot to do with his choice of actors. He cast two B-list celebrities most viewers recognize from television above the movie’s title: Krasinski, the floppy-haired, emo-girl heartthrob from The Office, and musician-actress Maya Rudolph, the versatile daughter of Minnie Riperton who established her comic personae on Saturday Night Live.

Neither looks much like a movie star. When their characters are exhausted from a long day of travel, they look it. When their characters wake up from bed, they look like people who have just woken up from bed. Some of the close-ups of Rudolph are frankly unflattering. They are a decidedly unglamorous couple, establishing with audiences a rapport of normalcy rather than a wish-fulfilled escape. And their chemistry is undeniable.

Their problems, too, are simple and easily relatable. Six months after Verona (Rudolph) realizes her pregnancy with Burt (Krasinski), Burt’s parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, the latter embodying the intellectually burnt-out shell of his Squid and the Whale elder) decide to move out of the country, offering little in the way of paternal, emotional or financial support for their son’s new family. So begins a journey to find a new home, which sees the couple traipsing from Colorado through Tucson, Phoenix, Montreal and Miami, reuniting with former friends and relatives along the way.

The film conjures David O. Russell’s superior Flirting With Disaster in that it’s a comedic road movie that, through a number of fleeting meetings with its memorable supporting characters, continually throws its comparatively normal couple into cauldrons of quirk.

What worked so well in the all-in absurdism of Flirting makes for the most artificial portions of Away We Go, an otherwise low-key and poignant study of the travails of relationship maintenance and blooming parenthood whose detours into caricature shoot for the wrong kind of laughs. This is most evident in the cringe-worthy sequence with Burt’s long-detached cousin, a New Age-y feminazi who changed her name from Ellen to LN (Maggie Gyllenhall). LN’s racial insensitivity and detest of strollers (“Why would you want to push your child away?”) aim for too-broad satire that’s practically ridiculous. A reunion with Verona’s old friend Lily (Allison Janney, always terrific) fares better, but even this segment dips into laborious quirk most of the time Lily’s husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) speaks.

But as Verona and Burt cohabit with a number of fine character actors, including Chris Messina (of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Paul Schneider (of Parks and Recreation), the leads become less like ciphers bouncing off the more colorful supporting cast, and the supporting players become a bit more like the leads – finely wrought, complex people dealing with the life-shattering consequences of everyday decisions.

Because it spends too much time aiming for big, false laughs, the small moments of poignancy in Away We Go seem slightly unearned – like Rudolph’s lovely Bob Dylan lullaby to her brother-in-law’s young daughter. And the whole project is too slickly produced – those predictable, weepy strains of indie-Americana music swell up at exactly the right times – to touch the kind of raw nerve endings that Revolutionary Road managed to do in its better moments.

But at least this time around, Mendes has made a film that subverts the public conception of his cinematic personality. For all its flaws, Away We Go is a testament of progress that finds its director eking his own way toward maturity.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

AWAY WE GO. Director: Sam Mendes; Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhall, Josh Hamilton, Carmen Ejogo, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey and Paul Schneider; Distributor: Focus Features; Rated: R; Venues: Now playing in Palm Beach County, expands to Broward and Miami-Dade on Friday: Regal Shadowood and Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, Cobb Downtown in Palm Beach Gardens, Muvico Pompano in Pompano Beach, Sunrise Gateway in Fort Lauderdale and Regal Sawgrass in Sunrise.

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