film review By Chris Herrington
On the Road
Away We Go searches for a workable family model in a modern world.
Away We Go has a tidy premise: A young couple expecting their first child travel around the country searching for the perfect place to start their family. But this isn't just any couple. As played by Saturday Night Live's Maya Rudolph and The Office's John Krasinski, Away We Go's Verona and Burt seem to be a conscious grab at the zeitgeist.
Interracial, unmarried, mobile, liberal, having their first kid in their mid-30s, Verona and Burt are generational figures, the new-model young couple in the Age of Obama.
Verona and Burt both work from home and aren't bound by place, so, feeling uncertain ("We're 34, and we don't even have this basic stuff figured out. Are we fuck-ups?" Burt asks), they hit the road, embarking on a cross-country search for the right place to relocate before their daughter is born.
Despite being a planes, trains, and automobiles road movie, Away We Go's stops aren't about places so much as the people Burt and Verona meet and what they represent. The series of family and friends that pass through the film is really a series of different family models.
With Burt's own Me Generation parents as a launching pad, these models start out cartoonish: In Phoenix, meeting the family of one of Verona's former co-workers (played by Allison Janney), the couple is presented with vulgar, hard-drinking, not-so-secretly miserable strivers, alternately oblivious and cruel to their children. In Madison, a visit with one of Burt's childhood friends (Maggie Gyllenhaal) starts promisingly but takes a bad turn, as the strident neo-hippie family pushes a parenting philosophy that includes breastfeeding a 6-year-old, sex in front of the kids, and a violent refusal to use a stroller.
Burt and Verona think they've found their groove in Montreal with a pair of college friends presiding over a happy, multicultural jumble of adopted kids then joining them for a nightlife paradise of late-night diners and jazz clubs. But there's trouble beneath the surface. By the time Verona and Burt end up in Florida to intervene in a parenting emergency plaguing Burt's brother (Paul Schneider), they realize there is no perfect model.
Despite being so schematic, this is director Sam Mendes' most relaxed film (not hard when the competition is American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road). I'm of the generation the film presents, and also a parent, and I found myself resisting the film at times. I grew weary of the gentle indie-folk soundtrack, couldn't get past how readily a film about new parents ignores economic reality, and at one point wanted to yell at Burt to comb his damn hair.
But despite these moments, Away We Go kept tugging at me. Credit the lead actors to a large degree: Krasinski's reaction to Gyllenhaal's anti-stroller lecture is a moment of anarchic glee that underscores the hollowness of American Beauty's histrionics. And Rudolph — surly, no-nonsense, but ultimately generous — I loved. After this and Prairie Home Companion, perhaps she should be pregnant in all her movies. Rudolph's answer to Krasinski's stroller revolt is a far quieter moment — singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" as a lullaby to a troubled niece. This scene could have — probably should have — been cloying, but Mendes plays it surprisingly well — keeping it faint and as a background activity — and Rudolph's total lack of indulgence seals it. This scene's winning tightrope walk between affecting and affected sums up the film.