Monday, June 15, 2009

Away We Go

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the images in Away We Go pretty well sums up the whole movie: Embarking on a road trip to figure out where and how to raise the baby they’re about to have, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) stand on an airport’s moving sidewalk. Filmed head-on through a long lens, they appear to be standing still while everyone else scurries about in the background.

Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, the thirty-something couple at the heart of the McSweeney’s/Believer publishing fiefdom, based the screenplay on things they’d experienced or read during Vida’s first pregnancy. Their sympathies are clearly with Verona and Burt, but the other characters are mostly caricatures, flitting by just to provide comic relief, life lessons, or both. So whether you like the movie has a lot to do with what you think of its main characters.

I enjoyed Burt and Verona’s teasing rapport and the ease of their intimacy, a long-established, day-to-day kind of love you don’t see much at the movies. I also liked the idea of the search they were on. So they had me at hello – yet they kept losing me. Watching this movie felt like going on a date with someone I was attracted to but had to work too hard to connect with.

My problem wasn’t with Burt and Verona, who wield that ironic/self-deprecating Gen X thing like a force field, deflecting any criticism I might have otherwise had. I found them believable ad charming, both individually and as a couple. Rudolph’s Verona exudes a steady, sometimes cranky honesty and kindness that make her the sanest person in any room. Krasinski’s Burt, who bounds about like an oversized puppy, seems significantly younger and less mature, but the two clearly delight in each other and you can see how they might balance each other out.

The problem is the grossly oversimplified people they encounter on their journey – and the smugness with which most of them are presented. I don’t know where that came from, but I suspect director Sam Mendes.

An Englishman with a lot of cachet in Hollywood, Mendes seems determined to make Significant Statements about American life in his art-house genre movies. Unfortunately, his messages are about as fresh as the Morse Code. American Beauty and Revolutionary Road delivered the news that life in the suburbs can be, like, conformist and soul-killing, man. Road to Perdition was a 40’s-style noir gangster movie that wanted to say something deep about fathers and sons, but its story got swallowed up by its art direction. And Jarhead took a politically savvy, impassioned book about Marines in Iraq and leached out all its nuance and angry eloquence.

Away We Go’s Burt and Verona do a lifestyle tour of the United States, and what they find isn’t pretty. Searching for their home with a capital H, they check in with friends and relatives in a series of cities, observing their wildly varied childrearing methods. In the first half of the movie, everybody they visit is self-involved to the point of cruelty, their behavior and beliefs so broadly sketched that they play almost like farce.

The worst offender is an old family friend of Burt’s, a self-satisfied, New Age-y professor whose home life is practically cultlike. Maggie Gyllenhaal looks like she’s having fun with the part, speaking in hushed tones about the joys of exposing children to parental lovemaking or reacting to a stroller as if it were made of toxic waste, but it’s not much fun to watch Mendes and company torch this straw woman.

The people in the second half of the film are more sympathetically portrayed. That’s a welcome shift, but the mood turns too suddenly somber as Burt and Verona feel not just their own pain but other people’s too. The indie-folkie score by singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch can get pretty annoying too, and none of the encounters go deep enough to provide any real insight.

An All-Star cast and crew polishes the intentionally scruffy script to a high gloss. There are no small parts when minor roles are played by actors like Allison Janney and Catherine O’Hara. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras works unobtrusively to mirror the couple’s perspective, using a lot of deadpan pans and providing such loving close-ups of Burt and Verona that I’ve memorized the mole on Rudolph’s eyebrow. Kuras also captures the movie’s undercurrent of quirk by occasionally showing us something slightly askew, like a reflection of an airplane in a wall of glass that makes it look like a school of leaping dolphins.

But no amount of skill can bring those other people to life. In the end, Verona and Burt stand out from their surroundings as starkly as the detective in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, lone human figures silhouetted against a cartoonish backdrop.

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