Sam Mendes just might be the most divisive director in Hollywood. He already has an Oscar, and at least two award winning classics (American Beauty and Revolutionary Road) on his brief, but brilliant resume. Sure, some could argue that the Road to Perdition was all flash and no firepower and that Jarhead failed to find a proper political footing, yet Mendes in general makes some damn fine films. But if you listen to Messageboard Nation, he's a pariah, an untalented hack who can't seem to deliver a decent motion picture to save his marriage to the mega-hot Kate Winslet. For them, any acknowledgment is too good, any attempt to defend his dystopian slices of suburban malaise too insincere to stomach. But the truth is, Mendes is talented and quite visionary, a quality name in a commercial game that sees too few actual artists and lots of disposable artifice. Look no further than his fresh, funky "indie" comedy Away We Go. Again, Mendes is mining the themes that made him an Academy fave, but this time he does it in a way that even his most staunch detractors would have a hard time hating.
When Burt and Verona find out that they're going to have a baby, they decide to put their present predicament into perspective. Living in a rundown house in the middle of the Colorado mountains may seem like a sensible way for an insurance futures salesman and a medical journal illustrator to live, but their home is drafty and they're far from family. So they set out on a cross-country trip to determine where best to raise their upcoming offspring. A visit to Burt's parents ends up in unexpected disaster, while Verona's friend and dysfunctional family in Arizona argues vehemently against a move there. Little sister Grace thinks her big sister should move back to Louisiana, while a cousin of Burt's in Wisconsin proves that some people shouldn't be parents. When a side trek to Canada proves even more problematic, our couple can't decide what to do. Miami may be the answer, but then again, home might just be where one least expects it - or, on the other hand, where it was all the time.
The last thing Sam Mendes wanted to make was a 'pregnancy' comedy. He hated the reliance on biology as a personal panacea and thought that many of the cinematic examples of same strained credibility and characterization for the sake of a series of infant jokes. When he read a script by novelist Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and his partner/wife Vendela Vida that didn't involve incessant poop and pee, but instead focused on outsider 30-somethings preparing for the arrival of their first born, Mendes saw something special. Instead of focusing on the kid, Away We Go centered on the battle of coming face to face with society. It presented a pair of loving, talented, and empathetic people who never really had to live in the world of responsibility, conformity, and expectations. It then took them on a journey of discovery, a road movie made up of small epiphanies, not Earth-shattering decisions. It was about trying to find a home, about leaving the confines of your insular world and, instead, finding a happy compromise between the needs of self and the beliefs of the people around you. The result is one of the best movies ever made about discovering one's true nature, about taking the example of others and realizing how easily one can be led astray.
Featuring two brilliant performances by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph and a refreshingly new focus from the man responsible for some of criticisms most complained over titles, Away We Go could very easily underwhelm at first. It doesn't spend a lot of time in the typical pregnant woman shtick. Rudolph's Verona gets a couple of comic asides, but for the most part, the situation is treated like it normally would be - a natural part of life. Krasinski's Burt also deconstructs the expectant dad bit, never once preening or putting on an air of smugness. Instead, Eggers and Vida let the surrounding supporting players make all the mistakes. From Burt's mother and father who seem selfish in their sudden move to Belgium, to the amazingly dense Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton who take New Age mumbo jumbo to manic, insane levels, Away We Go sends out heroes out into the throng, giving them many personal perils to encounter. Some are clichés (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan as stunted social climbers). Others are heartbreaking in their expression of loss and hopelessness (a Canadian couple who can no longer put on the façade). Mendes moves between them all with the same grace and gravity that he brought to his previous efforts. But instead of going for the jaundiced jugular, he lets Burt and Verona fend for themselves.
In the end, Away We Go is really a statement about rediscovering your roots, about how a child reconstructs your present, mandating you filter through your past to find what will work for the next 18 to 25 years. Burt and Verona don't want to lose what makes them special. He's not ready for a button down job and she's not capable of carrying the entire emotional weight of a baby. Since they are both so secure in who they are and yet so uncertain as to whether or not that's enough for the future, the desperation of their search becomes all the more poignant - and witty. The comedy here doesn't hit you over the head with obvious laughs. Instead, Mendes builds his moments like delicate ships in a bottle, pulling up the mini mainsails of humor only when he's prepared the audience for same. By the time we reach the conclusion, when we discover where Burt and Verona will finally set up familial shop, we feel the quest has been well worth it. Unlike other films where the kid is the consolation prize, Away We Go makes sure that the parents are the center of all the attention. It's clear that Mendes is trying to take back the power reproduction has given those caught in its clasp. Instead, he argues that mothers and fathers are just people, prone to making mistakes. It's a lesson Burt and Verona hope to learn before the bundle of "joy" arrives.
Filmed in widescreen to make the broad landscape as important as the people who populate it, Away We Go looks wonderful in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image that Universal and Focus Features provides. The colors shimmer and the details dress up Mendes' often subtle and striking compositions. The overall tone is muted and subtle, but the visual aspects here really argue for cinematographer Ellen Kuras' ability behind the lens. This is indeed a good looking film
With a soundtrack scattered with showgazing indie pop and other recognizable tunes, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound mix does a marvelous job of keeping the dialogue in balance with all the other sonic elements. There are also similarly styled multichannel tracks for those who prefer Spanish or French. All offer up a compelling and atmospheric experience, with Mendes making sure the conversations are kept front and center.
The director is also on hand, along with Eggers and Vida, for a full length audio commentary that is heavy on the sarcasm but equally hefty on production insights. Starting off by arguing against the standard formula facets of such a film, all three chide over who came up with what ideas, what makes the characters work, and how no one could personify Burt and Verona better than Krasinski and Rudolph. While it can be a bit self-congratulatory at times, this is one instance where the audience can agree with the praise heaped on by the individuals who made the movie. There is also a fascinating Making-of which covers much of the same anecdotal territory, and a strange piece about "green" filmmaking - ways in which the production was made more "eco-friendly". It seems oddly incongruous to the purpose of DVD bonus features.
For anyone who thinks Sam Mendes is a gifted, visionary filmmaker, there is no question about it - Away We Go is great. It's insightful, inspired, and imaginative. It never once oversteps its boundaries to belittle or talk down to its viewers. It's warm, witty, and very wise. For those reasons alone it deserves an easy Highly Recommended. Even better, for those who long felt that Mendes gets a pass while delivering very little worth celebrating, Away We Go might just change their minds. It's so genial, so good natured and open hearted that you feel stupid criticizing its concerns. Mendes may not be a universally recognized maker of magic, but a movie like this definitely argues for his approach to subject matter and certain personality types. Away We Go may seem small, but the points it has to make are awfully big in the end.