Movies · Reviews

Review: Away We Go

Away We Go is… very funny. Very sweet. Sometimes sad. Often beautiful. One of the best films of the year. And easily Sam Mendes’ greatest film yet.
By  · Published on June 12th, 2009

We’ve all learned a thing or two during oral sex haven’t we? Suck don’t blow. The alphabet is your friend. Vegetarians taste better. And now thanks to the new film Away We Go, one more piece of info can be added to the cunnilingus knowledge database… pregnancy is detectable by changes in vaginal taste! I imagine this is how doctors originally diagnosed women before sonograms, but I just don’t understand why I was never told. Would have saved me a bundle spent on EPT kits.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a young thirty-something couple who’ve just discovered they’re pregnant. Six months later the happily unmarried lovers are living in a dilapidated trailer in Colorado to be near Burt’s parents, but the plan quickly falls apart with the announcement that the grandparents-to-be are moving to Belgium before the baby is even due. Now untethered, and with jobs that can be done from anywhere, they head out on a cross-country journey in search of someplace new to call home. They want to live somewhere with built-in friends or family because they lack confidence in their ability to do right by their child. “Are we fuck ups?” she asks him one night as they sit in the dark and cold trailer. His response in the negative is unconvincing because, like her, he feels as if he should have life figured out by now. Should be as settled, secure, and sure of their lives like they assume everyone else is…

First up is Arizona where they visit Verona’s old co-worker Lily (Allison Janney), husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), and their two kids. She’s loudly oblivious, he’s dour, and the kids are the unfortunate victims of narcissistic parents. Next they head to Wisconsin to see Burt’s childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her family. LN and Roderick are the epitome of New Age extremists with philosophies that find them avoiding strollers (“Why would I want to push my baby away from me?!”) and allowing their kids to watch them make whoopee. If these first two families show Burt and Verona precisely what to avoid when raising a child, their last intended stop gives them something to aspire towards. Montreal is where college friends Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) have settled with their adopted children. The family may have been created sans biology, but the love on display is pure and instantly enviable. As perfect as the family seems though, we soon learn that doing everything right in life offers no guarantees. Finally, Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) calls to say his wife has left both him and their daughter making Miami their final stop where we again see love and beauty riding shotgun with the unpredictability of life.

Away We Go is probably the least conventional romantic comedy to hit screens in years. Burt and Verona are sweetly and realistically (but not cloyingly) in love, and the film at no point feels the need to threaten that with manufactured fights or misunderstandings. There’s no artificial break up just so they can conveniently reunite at the end. Instead, the two remain convincingly in love throughout the film acting as wells of hope and optimism for each other when faced with doubts. It’s a rarity in film and should be celebrated for that facet alone. Luckily it’s also a very funny, sweet, and aware film too. Viewers in their twenties and thirties should find much to identify with and love here, because all of us have asked the same questions at one point or another. Where am I headed? Why aren’t things different? Am I doing everything I can with my life? (As an unpaid writer here at FSR, I ask myself these questions every day.) The perception is that life has certain check-boxes and deadlines, and if you haven’t found a career, gotten married, had kids, etc by a certain age then you’re failing and lagging behind the more successful people around you. Away We Go offers an alternative viewpoint, a redirection of priorities, and it does so with grace, wit, and heart.

The movie’s rampant humor comes from dialogue over one-liners, from situations instead of gags, and both Krasinski and Rudolph excel from beginning to end. “The Office” has given Krasinski small opportunities for drama secreted in larger blocks of comedy, but here he gets to stretch and blend the genres to fantastic effect. And Rudolph stands tall over just about every other SNL alum with a performance completely devoid of sketch comedy shtick. She forgoes accents and exaggeration in favor of a surprisingly natural and believable performance. (I love Amy Poehler, but if she wants to do anything beyond goofy sidekick roles in the future she needs to watch and learn from this movie.) The entire supporting cast rotates in and out quickly and effectively starting with Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara who bring laughs early on as Burt’s unaffected parents. Messina and Lynskey are both beautiful and affecting as is Schneider as a man who feels utterly lost as a newly single father. The normally reliable Janney and Gyllenhaal are the only partial missteps here as their characters are borderline caricatures. I say borderline, but in truth both actresses liberally cross the line with stereotypical and cartoonish behavior. The fault most assuredly stems from the page, but it wouldn’t have hurt either of them to dial things back a bit. That’s not to say the two don’t offer plenty of laughs in the process though.

Speaking of the page, Away We Go is the feature screenplay debut from Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Eggers burst on to the literary scene with the truly amazing “A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius” before slowly cobbling away at that much-deserved acclaim with some barely readable narrative follow-ups. The film restores my faith in his eye for believable characters capable of conveying real lives filled with pasts, presents, and futures. Structured in chapters with title cards that identify where they’re going (Away to Phoenix, Away to Madison), the film moves smoothly and confidently forward with people who live and learn along the journey. The main characters are real people, not quirky cutouts laced with snarky witticisms so prevalent in “indie” cinema. Accompanying the happenings on screen are some apt and often beautiful songs by Alexi Murdoch. Sounding more than a little like the late Nick Drake, Murdoch crafts simple and sweet songs that match the film’s mood and style perfectly.

I expect misguided dissension on this, but Away We Go is easily the best film Sam Mendes has directed. It’s the most assured, simple, and poignant story he’s yet told. The actors don’t over-sell the characters or emotions (Revolutionary Road), the story doesn’t display false importance (American Beauty), the film’s not entirely reliant on visuals (Road To Perdition), and we’re not forced into watching a shirtless Gyllenhaal (Jarhead)… well not the same Gyllenhaal anyway. It’s his most identifiable and likable film too. When Burt and Verona finally make their decision it’s one that may seem obvious at first, but we know it’s a choice they’ve had to earn. Wisely, the title card for the last segment says simply “Home” with no geographic identification attached. It’s a nice reminder that home is a place we’ll all find eventually, and one it’s never too late to start looking for. (Although if you notice a certain blueberry and cinnamon tartness in your girlfriend’s honey pot you may want to get a jump on that search…) Away We Go is far from the typical summer movie, but if you find it playing nearby I strongly recommend you check it out. It just may end up being one of the best films you see all year.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.