Maybe Sam Mendes is worried about street cred. Coming off the scenery-chewing histrionics of Revolutionary Road, and cultivating a string of meticulously composed Oscar-baiters (Road to Perdition, American Beauty), Away We Go is a palate cleanser, a shaggy-dog indie-style road film engineered to connect Mendes with hipster audiences — it is, after all, written by McSweeney's Dave Eggers, his wife, and Believer editor, Vendela Vida.
Yeah, it's got the quirky, arch tone you'd expect, and hipster-y soundtrack — by Damien Rice/Nick Drake knock-off Alex Murdoch — but Mendes brings a nimble and disarmingly sincere focus to the terrors of impending adulthood, while Eggers' and Vida's script captures the tail-end anxieties of Gen X'ers; a generation so invested in not following in the footsteps of their self-aggrandizing boomer parents that they've forgotten to establish their own identity.
Burt (The Office's John Krasinsky) and Verona (SNL's Maya Rudolph) are a thirtysomething couple expecting their first child. They live and work out of a ramshackle tract home in Colorado, near Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O' Hara). When the soon-to-be grandparents announce that they're moving to Belgium before the baby is born, the unmarried couple hits the road in search of a place to call home. Visiting four sets of friends and relatives in Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, Miami, the couple encounter a dizzying spectrum of dysfunctional family dynamics, feeding their doubts while deepening their own relationship.
It's a shapeless and episodic journey that nevertheless finds big laughs and surprisingly moving moments. Unlike his previous efforts, Mendes is careful not to boldly underline his points while cinematographer Ellen Kuras creates an intimate and spontaneous atmosphere.
Inevitably, the director and his writers can't help the bits of smarty-pants condescension toward their more outrageous (and, admittedly, very funny) characters. Allison Janney practically explodes from the screen as Verona's bizarrely inappropriate ex-boss while Maggie Gyllenhaal's smug new-age mom makes an easy comic target, reinforcing the audience's sense of superiority. More, the characters' socioeconomic sameness betrays the creators' privileged roots. And where other filmmakers might've punched the sarcasm harder, Mendes counterbalances with underlying confusion and introspection; a surprisingly melodramatic moment sees the heartache of miscarriage handled gently, focusing on Burt and Verona's reactions rather than their friend's expressions of misery.
It's a savvy and effective move, creating an infectious intimacy with two likable, if maybe a tad too hip, leads. Krasinski and Rudolph not only wield their comic skills to good effect, they traverse the film's more dramatic turns with a naturalism that connects us to their relationship and sells Eggers' and Vida's sometimes self-consciously clever exchanges. In particular, it's their unspoken gestures and looks that make clear that Burt and Verona's rapport is real and heartfelt.
While Away We Go's final visits seem more a need for an end than an ultimate destination — delivering the obvious epiphany that there are no role models and home is where you choose to make it —Mendes and his crew touchingly tap into the fears, hopes, regret and joys of imminent parenthood. And, in the end, earnestness wins out; reminding us that life is an awkward and confusing journey that requires love and patience to survive.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.