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Away We Go is a creative, refreshing comedy. Its character-driven laughs veer away from the cookie-cutter sameness of today's light entertainment, where everything must be either chick-flick safe or guy-flick gross. The small-scale story follows an interesting modern couple around the country as they search for a proper place to settle -- they're expecting a baby in several months. Leads John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph may not be big stars -- a fact that seems to have harmed the picture at the box office -- but the couple they play has managed to avoid our culture's various lifestyle traps. They're thoughtful, considerate and not too concerned about what other people think. We immediately take them to heart.
Director Sam Mendes has a rounded résumé but he's most noted for the rather closed-minded satire American Beauty and last year's overcooked look at the conformist 50s, Revolutionary Road. The writers of Away We Go are Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, a well-thought-of literary couple blessed with the gift of fine dialogue writing; we can tell that they're investing their own personalities in their work. Not since Adam's Rib has the idle conversation of ordinary adults seemed so natural.
Insurance man Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and medical illustrator Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) are an unmarried but committed couple awaiting their first baby. Although Burt frequently proposes Verona is the one disinterested in a formal commitment. The Farlanders are upset to learn that John's parents (Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels) are relocating to Europe, as they moved to the Denver area to be near the older couple. This sets Burt and Verona off on a city-hopping tour of the country, checking in with relatives and friends; the object being to find the "right" new place to lay down stakes. Unfortunately, the first few families they meet are madly dysfunctional, and the attractive, idyllic couple they find in Montreal turns out to be burdened with heavy psychic baggage.
Away We Go is foremost a comedy-drama about an oddly matched couple. The opening scene states its willingness to be frank by presenting Burt and Verona in the middle of a common but racy sex act, which seems all the more human when Burt comes up from under the blankets wearing glasses and a wristwatch. He's a natural optimist who doesn't give a thought to his appearance. She's a slightly moody woman of mixed race with a wicked sense of humor. They're the kind of odd couple that doesn't seem suited one for the other until we see them interact. Whatever puzzle piece one is missing, the other seems more than willing to provide.
Writers Eggers and Vida reject the Neil Simon hyped sitcom style in which personality is no more than a set of funny quirks to provide comedy sparks between characters. Burt and Verona are not in competition to become the hippest couple in the world. Being together is what makes their lives work, and nothing is more important to them. Verona has a calm look for Burt, no matter how goofy he's dressed or what shape his hair and beard are in. She even tolerates his grating "business phone voice", where he transforms into a rabid sports nut to interact with his insurance customers.
The couples the Farlanders "audition" in various cities seem a lot more forced, as they drift in and out of the film in just a few minutes and need to be overstated to make an impact. Jeff Daniels and the hilarious Catherine O'Hara are amusing without going over the top, but we still feel the heavy hand of Satire at work. Mom is overly solicitous, Dad's into sexy Native American faux-art and both seem eager to escape the role of traditional grandparents. In Arizona we meet Allison Janney's vulgar, alcoholic desperate housewife who can't seem to say anything that isn't appallingly inappropriate. Janney's terrific characterization seems to be based on denied desperation and self-loathing. It probably isn't all that much of an exaggeration. It's just that it belongs in a much broader film; the mellow Farlanders are shocked into relative silence. Our instant reaction is to think that, if there are more than three or four famiies like Janney's in Arizona, the whole state should be quarantined and left to starve.
Burt and Verona are forced to travel by train because the airlines won't believe she's months away from delivering. The next couple they meet are veritable New-Age Nazis. LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) subscribes to a laundry list of extreme and questionable practices, like sleeping with her children and even having sex while they're in the bed. As zealots are wont to do she takes instant offense that the Farlanders would even consider disagreeing with her. LN rudely rejects the gift of a stroller as a disgusting device designed to keep mothers and children from touching each other. Brad ends up cutting the visit short by giving one of LN's kids a frantic ride around the house in the stroller, just to make the woman blow a fuse.
Old friends in Montreal seem to have an idyllic situation, doting on a multi-racial group of adopted kids; it all seems too good until the father breaks down at a restaurant and tells the Farlanders about some serious problems in the family. Verona visits a dear sister (Carmen Ejogo), who unfortunately brings up unhappy politics from her own family childhood, old wounds that perhaps account for Verona's occasional moodiness. Burt interrupts their search to run to Florida to help his brother with a serious family problem. Nowhere do the Farlanders seem to find the perfect nesting situation.
The fun is in the quirky character interaction. Burt's capable of some fairly eccentric public behavior but is never less than amiable company. Verona seems to feed on his dependable cheerfulness. At this point we love the Farlanders and would like nothing more than to see them continue to persevere in a world where so many relationships seem impermanent.(spoiler follows)
The film finishes as the Farlanders check out a dream house on a Southern waterway, that, it turns out, they already own. The place needs fixing up but Burt has the perfect skill set to put it in shape. It's such an obvious dream house, and so unattainable a dream for most of the audience, that Burt and Verona seem to be given an easy out.
Universal's Away We Go has a pleasing relaxed look and feel that stands in strong contrast with Sam Mendes' previous Revolutionary Road; the new Blu-ray replicates its moods. The Farlanders' dark and cluttered rural home has a truly cozy feel, whereas the scorched Arizona exteriors seem totally inhospitable. Each successive location manages a specific look of its own, so it surprises us to learn that many exteriors were filmed in New England, even some set in Florida. The music track relies on gentle guitar tunes, with an occasional pop oldie sneaking through.
Director Mendes and writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vita share an illuminating commentary. Eggers and Vita have plenty to say about their writing decisions and the formulation of their characters, making the track a good listen for aspiring screenwriters. The on-the-set featurette shows a relaxed and happy production; actors Krasinski and Rudolph look like they're having a fine time. Ms. Rudolph praises the false pregnant tummy effect that she wears throughout the film, saying that it feels like carrying a baby but weighs almost nothing. A second shorter piece addresses the producers' gestures toward a Greener set environment. Crew people carry canteens instead of tossing away plastic bottles and hybrid vehicles are used where possible. It may seem frivolous but any effort is to be commended -- the movie sets I've been on produced an appalling quantity of trash.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Away We Go Blu-ray rates:
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