I wouldn't want to take it too far, but Away We Go feels a bit like a response to criticisms of director Sam Mendes's previous effort, the also quite good Revolutionary Road. Some called that film cold, slightly overdramatic and somewhat unrelatable to modern times, each of which has at least some truth to it, in my opinion.
So new we have Away We Go, which is perhaps a bit warm, overearnest, easygoing, and perhaps overinclusive of very very modern, or modish characters. Away We Go is like a dialectical journey through various iterations of modern relationships. It's absolutely gorgeous, funny and touching despite weaknesses of being too glib, too cute in a few too many places and having a very weak, ambiguous ending.
It tells the story of Burt Farlander (Jon Krasinski, "The Office") and Verona de Tessant (Maya Rudolph, "Saturday Night Live"), an unmarried couple who discover they're having a baby, and a trip they take around North America visiting friends and relatives, auditioning places to settle down to raise their child.
The film is written by real-life couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, writers of memoirs, short stories and novels, and it's a compliment to say that it's only a little too writerly. Sometimes characters break out with long monologues which are short stories in themselves. A bit too much emphasis is placed on dialogue, and not quite enough on action. Still, to create a believable, interesting, appealing couple the audience can identify with is no small achievement, and this also arises out of the writing, along with luminous performances from Rudolph and Krasinski.
As in life, the journey is more the point than the destination, so it would probably spoil a bit too much to revisit each of the locales and characters encountered there. Suffice it to say that Burt and Verona see enough of various styles of living and married life that Verona's comment that they "don't love each other like anybody else" has quite a bit of resonance. They do, in fact, seem like much the sanest couple in evidence, though they also see that the toll taken as people confront the challenges of life together may not exempt their relationship forever from the wear and tear of longevity. This scares them as well as reinforcing the reassurance their own love provides them.
The cast is quirky, pretty persuasive, and genuinely surprising. Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels play Burt's off-center parents ("I like your new hairstyle. I don't think it makes you look crazy," Burt tells his mother). Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan are memorable as old friends of Verona's whom they visit in Phoenix. Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King from HBO's excellent "Boycott") plays Verona's sister with grace, wisdom and wistfulness, providing some of the film's most moving moments. Maggie Gyllenhaal is self-important and loopy as Burt's childhood "cousin."
The film's cinematography is bright and open, giving a good sense of the places they visit and the various emotional avenues opened by them. The music, much by Alexi Murdoch, who reminds one of Nick Drake or Billy Bragg, adds much, and blends seemlessly with tunes by George Harrison, Bob Dylan and others.
The film brings to mind several other quirky road-trip/mid-life angst films, among them Flirting with Disaster, About Schmidt, Sideways, and the like, and it feels quirky in a similar vein. However, it's not derivative of any of these or any other readily identifiable model, and it does feel driven by its own characters' realities more than any intrusive big ideas or major contrivances. Some of the minor characters do seem too contrived at times, and perhaps like their stories are supposed to form some kind of thesis or antithesis to Burt and Verona's relationship, but it doesn't quite work out in an intellectually satisfying way, so that it's a bit confusing why some parts of their side stories are included and others perhaps left out. It doesn't have nearly the emotional resonance, in the end, as any of the three movies mentioned above, nor even, quite, as much as Revolutionary Road.
Without spoiling the ending, I do understand that it probably added something to it to have some odd mysteries and unsaid things the audience is thinking about while the action unfolds, but on the whole, I felt some loose ends were left unaddressed, the last line of dialogue kind of blew it, and it felt a little too perfect and overly symbolic. Still, for a film with little or no suspense, it had me riveted to my seat and entertained throughout. And it's so beautiful.
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