Director Sam Mendes is only as good as his script. He’s got a good eye for compelling visuals and works well with actors, but overall his skill is in knowing how to fully inhabit a genre. However, he never manages to leave his own mark on that genre and his work feels, as a result, generic. It’s a major drawback when he’s working with a script like “Revolutionary Road” and produces a film that feels like fifth-rate Douglas Sirk melodrama, but with Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida’s warm, outrageous, and gentle script for “Away We Go”, Mendes takes his biggest weakness and uses it to keep the film steady when the script begins throwing the audience for some emotional loops.
Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their mid-30s, unmarried, un-tethered, and about to have a baby. When their plans to live near Burt’s parents (played wonderfully by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels in a couple of the film’s many brief-yet-memorable supporting roles) fall through, the two begin a geographical and emotional search for where they should begin their new lives as parents. Their travels to Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and Miami aren’t about the cities, or housing prices, or any of the bigger concerns most couples have when starting this phase of their life. “Away We Go” is all about impending parenthood and bringing honesty and humor to the knowledge that you’ll never be ready for your life to change forever.
What’s most appealing in “Away We Go” is the film’s confidence. You expect a film like “The Hangover” to shock you with raunchy humor but there are jokes in “Away We Go” that had my jaw dropping because it’s rolling along as a happy indie flick and suddenly you have Alison Janney saying her daughter looks like a dyke. There’s some biting comedy in this flick and yet it’s craftily mixed in with Alexi Murdoch’s gentle folk music and tender moments between Burt and Verona. This is a film that could have spun wildly out of control but Sam Mendes has turned the limitations of genre to his advantage to make sure that the audience is never thrown too far out of the film and can always reconnect to the story and the characters.
“Away We Go” is filled with fantastic performances and memorable characters but it’s really about two people. This is Burt and Verona’s story and while we see glimpses of other families and their pitfalls and the successes of parenthood (the pitfalls always being far more amusing than the successes), we’re not meant to see these supporting roles as fully-formed characters because it’s all from Burt and Verona’s perspective and their attempts to cope with their impending parenthood. Most admirably, rather than attempting to draw predictable and tiresome drama out of conflict between Burt and Verona, the film never wavers in asserting that these two love each other unconditionally (buoyed by Krasinski and Rudolph’s wonderful chemistry). The drama comes from the question is whether that unconditional love is realistically enough to raise a child. What happens if a parent or both parents die? What will happen down the line to change the current dynamic? What can we value if everything is shifting and what is the real strength of love?
Sam Mendes won’t be on my list of favorite directors any time soon but in walking the indie-comedy genre, he’s taken a great script and a great cast and steered them into a surprising yet highly accessible film that is easily his best work to date.
Rating —– A minus