I am not a huge fan of Mendes' last film "Revolutionary Road", starring Kate Winslett (who is married to Mendes) and Leonardo DiCaprio. But if you are a loyal reader, you already know this and there is no point in rehashing this. Can I just say what a miserable experience it was to watch two people argue for two hours?
After I saw the trailer, I decided that Mendes decided to follow up an emotionally draining film like "Revolutionary Road" with this light hearted, contemporary, lower budget comedy to provide a change of pace, both for him and his audience. Now the only thing that would complete the package is for Mendes to give us each a free ticket to this new film, to provide us with a break from his emotionally draining film. To compensate us for the lost time and money, both of which were robbed from us.
Since that wasn't going to happen, I bought a ticket on my own.
Burt Farlander (John Krasinski, TV's "The Office), an insurance salesman, and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph, TV's "Saturday Night Live"), an illustrator for medical textbooks, live in a ramshackle house near his parents. Mom (Catherine O'Hara), who seems to want to have the baby for Verona, and dad (Jeff Daniels) announce they are finally moving to Belgium for two years. It is the realization of a lifelong dream and they leave next month. The problem is the baby is due in three months; they will miss the birth of their grandson. But they are blissfully unaware. Shocked, Burt and Verona decide to visit their other family and friends, crisscrossing the continent, to find a place to live. Their first stop is in Arizona, where they visit Verona's old boss Lily (Allison Janney) and her husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), parents of two teens who will most definitely need a lot of therapy as adults, new fixtures at the Greyhound races in Arizona. They escape and travel to visit Verona's sister, Grace (Carmen Egojo) who works at a fancy resort. Continuing their travels, they visit people across the country, including LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an old family friend of Burt's and now has become the ultimate Earth Mother. Later they visit two old college friends in Montreal who have a happy life adopting children. But each of these people has problems, some more overt than others, and Burt and Verona continue to look for a new place to live, to nest, to set up their new family home.
Written by Dave Eggars (one of the founders of McSweeneys, working on his first screenplay) and Vendela Vida (an author also working on her first screenplay), the film tells the story of two people who are deeply in love and willing to face any obstacle life throws in their way. Some of these obstacles happen to contain very funny moments, poking sticks at some of the things many people hold dear. When these moments of laughter happen, they seem more genuine than a lot of comedies. And a lot of the credit for this lies in the screenplay. Sure, the story may seem a bit forced, but the journey Burt and Verona take seems completely natural because we have already learned a lot about these two characters and we can believe they would make these decisions.
Burt and Verona are each happy with their flexible jobs because they allow them time to do what they want when they want. This freedom allows them to live in a ramshackle house they call home. Burt suddenly decides he wants to take up whittling, so he can teach it to their new baby. They are basically two young people who don't have a lot of commitments and can live in a pretty free manner. When they learn there is a baby on the way, they decide they have to make some changes and one of those is to set up some roots, to raise their child. So they embark on this journey, traveling to different parts of the country, visiting family and friends to see where they might be able to set up a new house.
Another key factor in the success of "Away We Go" are the performances by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. Both are so natural, they almost seem to disappear into their roles, helping us forget we are watching two people in a film.
Maya Rudolph, last seen on "Saturday Night Live" doing impersonations of people like Oprah and Michele Obama, proves she has the acting chops to become a major star. She's always been funny, but in this film, she plays a very real person. I hesitate to say she is the "straight man" in the film, but Verona seems very believable and natural and she is the dramatic center of the story. Rudolph seems to melt into the role and often helps us forget we are watching an actress playing a role. It is a very good performance.
And Rudolph's character grounds the film. She and Burt are the dramatic center. This is necessary to help the film remain balanced because everyone they visit is crazy, funny and pretty broad. If everyone were too crazy, the story would resemble a bad sitcom.
John Krasinski plays Burt and does an equally fine job of making Burt seem real, human and interesting. Burt is funnier, a little more comedic, allowing Krasinski to interject some humor into the role. But this fits their relationship because Burt is less mature than Verona. She is naturally more serious and grounding.
As a pair, they are great, complementing each other. This only helps make their relationship see all the more natural.
And all of this "natural" helps to balance the craziness introduced by the colorful supporting characters.
First up? Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels play Burt's mom and dad. Verona seems a little weary of them and as soon as they arrive at their house for dinner, we see why. Mom immediately sits Verona down and places her head on the tummy of the pregnant woman. She seems reluctant to move and would be happy to have her ear permanently attached to Verona's stomach.
Later, the couple travels to Arizona to make two stops. First, they visit Verona's old boss, Lily (Allison Janney) and her husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) and their two kids. Janney is way over the top, but hilarious and it works. There is no way these two should have kids because they are so phenomenally screwed up themselves.
They next pay a visit to Grace (Carmen Egojo), Verona's sister. This segment is more balanced and thoughtful, helping to fill in information about Verona's family, giving her more depth.
The next stop is in Ann Arbor where they visit LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Burt's sort-of relative, a college professor who has become the ultimate Earth mother. It's funny stuff.
As "Away We Go" progresses, and we watch Burt and Verona progressing from one couple to the next, the story becomes episodic, almost like we are reading chapters in a book. In "Go", this technique works. As the young couple enter various tornadoes of emotion and activity, it seems only natural they will want to escape, will want to move on. It is also natural that we will want to do the same, so the episodic nature of the film gives us a quick jolt of laughter or drama and then a brief respite as the characters move on to their next destination.
"Away We Go" works extremely well because Mendes seems to stand back, letting the story and characters go where they would naturally go. He doesn't meddle too much and this allows the actors to be natural, to make their characters believable and human. Gee. What a concept.