Away We Go
Sam Mendes has a little statue on his mantle for his direction of AMERICAN BEAUTY. BEAUTY was a dark film with occasional comedic parts (played masterfully by Kevin Spacey) that laid out every aspect of the mid-life crisis. In AWAY WE GO, Mendes makes a film which explores another crisis – that of new parenthood – which again touches on all the fears, joy, angst and insecurity encompassed in that drastic challenge. But Mendes presents these emotions in a road picture with the characters along the way acting as living examples of those fears to the protagonists, played by likable stars John Krasinki (yep, Jim from “The Office” finally got a good movie) and Maya Rudolph (of SNL fame), to create a comedy that runs the emotional gamut. And to watch these characters go through that gauntlet, to deal with all those thoughts, hopes and uncertainties as they are exposed to the different people and situations along their journey, is to be emotionally affected as well.
Rudolph and Krasinski play Verona De Tessant and Burt Farlander, a young unmarried couple who find out they’re having a baby at a comically inopportune time. Fast forward to 6 months later, Verona is very pregnant (she is often accused of being further along than she really is) and the couple is met with disturbing news they were altogether unprepared for: Burt’s parents – played as hilariously oblivious by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels – are moving to Belgium a month before the baby is born. Having no other ties to their location since they were counting on the parents for help with the baby, they look into moving to other locales to raise the baby. While part of them enjoys their freedom of movement, another part brought up by Verona wonders if they are “screw ups” for not having their life – location, house, standard employment – figured out yet. They then embark on a trip to explore different areas to live where they know people: Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; Madison, Wisconsin; Montreal, Canada; and surprisingly, Miami, Florida.
The characters they know and encounter on the trip bring up the myriad of confusing problems they fear in impending parenthood. The first couple, Lilly and Lowell (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan), are chronically unhappy and berate, belittle and neglect their children. Verona’s sister, Grace (Carmen Ejogo, who has lovely moments with Rudolph), is single and insecure in her relationships. LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton) play parents with bizarre views on parental issues from breast-feeding to the use of strollers, the latter they oppose vehemently. While Tom and Munch Garrett, their friends from college played as an identically cool mirror to Burt and Verona by Chris Messina and Melanie Linskey, have a looming sadness at Munch’s five miscarriages. Their final trip to Miami is last second as Burt gets a call from his brother, Courtney (Paul Schneider, also from NBC Thursday night – “Parks and Recreation”), saying his wife has left him and their daughter with no warning and their marriage is through. It’s on this final trip that Burt and Verona have their breakdown as to the many fears that come with their bringing a child into the world. Finally, in a heartfelt monologue, Verona realizes her one true home was where she and her sister grew up with their parents (who died when Verona was in college).
Krasinski and Rudolph play these roles to perfection. I looked at the clock, and 8 minutes and 15 seconds into this film, I truly loved and cared about this couple. The awkward moments they encounter with the bizarre families they meet along the way somewhat emulate the awkward situations Krasinki has in “The Office,” however with this new character he is also allowed some emotional reaction to being a new father and defending, protecting and empathizing with his pregnant wife. Rudolph doesn’t play the typical crazy pregnant woman, allowing emotions to take center stage, but rather shows them subtly at different times, often most lovingly in glances between her and Krasinki. The mixed bag of great supporting actors along the road perform their roles beautifully. Allison Janney plays a loud, brass mother with a cringingly inappropriate moment with Burt. Jim Gaffigan plays a depressed, defeated rehash of Lester Burnham from AMERICAN BEAUTY. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the New Age mother to perfection and offers the biggest contrast with Burt and Verona. And Messina and Linskey play their roles with a last minute sadness that sneaks up on everyone, and is that much more effective because of it.
But the real work is done here by Burt and Verona, the couple every viewer would love to know and with whom we all should want to be friends. A glimpse into how they will behave as parents is given in a lovely scene between them and Burt’s niece before bedtime, with a stuffed animal puppet show and Verona gently singing her to sleep. Their final scenes listing all their fears and insecurities speak volumes to a displaced and unsure generation making their way into the parental/mature roles in society. But the love they show for one another throughout the film, shown in everything from Burt’s constant declarations of love to Verona’s calm support and reassurance to Burt’s fears, is what truly makes this film the great piece of emotional filmmaking it is. And though it is a small film – more than likely not to be recognized come Oscar season – those emotional effects are not small at all.