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Dustin Putman

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Away We Go  (2009)
4 Stars
Directed by Sam Mendes.
Cast: Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski, Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jim Gaffigan, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Carmen Ejogo, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Josh Hamilton, Paul Schneider, Samantha Pryor, Conor Carroll, Isabelle Moon Alexander, Bailey Harkins, Brianna Eunmi Kim, Jerome Stephens Jr., Colton Parsons, Katherine Vaskevich.
2009 – 98 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and some sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 10, 2009.
"Away We Go" is just what director Sam Mendes needed to show he still has a sense of humor. Following his last film, 2008's suffocatingly self-serious marriage-in-crisis drama "Revolutionary Road," Mendes this time presents a couple whose loving, complimentary relationship is the best thing they have going for themselves. A diverse stream of families surround them, all acquaintances of the past and with values and ways of life often in opposition with their own. Comedic and episodic, soulful and touching, simple and sneakily wise, the picture presents a vision of life full of all the quirks, nuances, disappointments and happy surprises that come along with it. With singer-composer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch's glorious sounds leading the way like a musical roadmap, "Away We Go" packs a wallop without once feeling like it is trying too hard.

College sweethearts Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) are thirty-three, residing in a broken-down Colorado cabin with cardboard windows, and three months away from having their first child. Despite herself being an artist and Burt working in insurance, Verona fears they may be what she bluntly calls "fuck-ups." When Burt's parents, Gloria (Catherine O'Hara) and Jerry (Jeff Daniels), announce their planned move to Belgium before the baby is born—and worse yet, that they will be renting out their house to strangers rather than giving it to them to live in—Burt and Verona decide they have no reason to stay put. On the search for a place to plant their roots and call home, they begin a cross-continental trip that finds them visiting Verona's former co-worker, Lily (Allison Janney), in Phoenix; Verona's younger sister, Grace (Carmen Ejogo), in Tucson; Burt's family friend, Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), in Madison; college chums Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) in Montreal; and Burt's brother, Courtney (Paul Schneider), in Miami. By the time their travels come to an end, Burt and Verona hope to have figured out just where they want to raise their daughter.

A road movie made up of what feels like a half-dozen exquisitely realized short films, "Away We Go" trucks right along, continuously entertaining and never overstaying its welcome in any one place. The two constants throughout the narrative are, of course, Verona and Burt. While there is a minor disagreement in the form of Burt's wish to get married and Verona's reluctance to the idea—she vowed never to do so if her parents, both deceased, couldn't be there to see it—credit director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida for not turning this into a bigger conflict than it is, or compromising Verona's view on the subject. No matter where they go, who they meet, and what obstacles they face, these two soul mates are just that—fully in love and content with each other, destined to be that way until death does them part. They don't need a signed piece of paper to tell them that.

In her juiciest film role to date, Maya Rudolph (2006's "A Prairie Home Companion") is a revelation as Verona. For someone best-known for her long-running stint on "Saturday Night Live," one could never have guessed just how adept Rudolph is at portraying a three-dimensional character without feeling the need to fall back on her natural gift for comedy. Verona's journey through the course of the picture has a very distinct and affecting arc. She is pleased in her relationship with Burt, but has never allowed herself to face her parents' deaths and come to terms with it; because of this, she has found herself almost in an existential holding pattern, afraid to move forward without the guidance she knows they would have given her. The choices she makes and childhood memories she ultimately faces by the end are necessary for her to embrace her own future, and her future as a mother. Rudolph, like Molly Shannon in 2007's "Year of the Dog," disappears into a predominately serious part that unearths her true humanity and probably only hints at the complete range she is capable of as an actress.

For someone who had yet to hit a home run as he segues from TV's "The Office" to leading man status, John Krasinski (2008's "Leatherheads") at last has found his footing with his turn as Burt. Bespectacled and ever so slightly dorky, Burt is the consummate good guy, a young man who sounds silly when he raises his voice because it is so not in his nature to do so. In a ploy to raise their unborn child's heartbeat, he yells out expletives at Verona in one of the funnier, unsuspectingly winning recurring jokes. Krasinski is akin to a puppy dog as Burt, only wanting the best for Verona and satisfied with what they have together, married or not. It is important to point out, though, that he is not a pushover, more than able to speak his mind when necessary. Burt's willingness to do this comes in handy, for example, when he and Verona are welcomed into the home of old family friend Ellen, a college professor who has changed her name to LN and taken up with a hippy named Roderick (Josh Hamilton). LN's aversion to the three S's—separation, sugars, and strollers—as it relates to her parenting is offbeat enough, but it only gets worse the longer Burt and Verona spend in their crazytown of a house. Something, finally, has to give, and LN is just asking to be put in her place.

The supporting cast that director Sam Mendes has compiled for "Away We Go" is a virtual treasure trove, each one brilliant and able to flesh out a distinct personality with only a few minutes of screen time each. Allison Janney (2007's "Juno") is a hoot as Lily, an obnoxiously outspoken mother who gives advice on parenting without really knowing how to do it herself. Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal (2008's "The Dark Knight"), very well-cast as LN, are arguably the two broadest of characters, comic relief that not only amuses, but also helps to inform who they are as people. Lily and LN may be out-there, but they are also wholly plausible. As Burt's self-involved parents, Gloria and Jerry, Catherine O'Hara (2006's "For Your Consideration") and Jeff Daniels (2007's "The Lookout") are a riot playing off one another, as when Burt accuses them of moving three thousand miles from their grandchild, only to be corrected that Belgium is much further away than that.

Adding some welcome levity to their pit stops are Carmen Ejogo (2008's "Pride and Glory"), as Verona's hotel worker sister Grace, and, most unforgettably, Chris Messina (2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") and Melanie Lynskey (2006's "Flags of Our Fathers") as Montreal-based college pals Tom and Munch. The Montreal interlude, wherein Burt and Verona see the warmth and love that Tom and Munch give their brood of colorblind adopted children, only to discover a grim underbelly to their outwardly upbeat lives, might be the film's best. It is certainly its most heartbreaking, with a trip to a nightclub turning into an unexpectedly sobering experience. Messina and Lynskey are superb in their scenes, masking a pain that floats subtly just below the surface.

"Away We Go" is a joy of a movie, as loose, comfortable and lived-in as an old, reliable blanket. As funny as it has the ability to be, it also knows how to find the right balance between humor and human drama. There are no earth-shaking developments, per se, nor is there a hint of feel-good sappiness. Nevertheless, the picture is unabashedly sweet even when it is acerbic, and finds just the right notes to go out on as the third act winds down and Burt and Verona make critical choices about their lives and the type of parents they hope to be. "Away We Go" sends the viewer out smiling, satisfied, and wondering why there are so few motion pictures out there as simply yet marvelously written, shot, and acted as this one. Director Sam Mendes makes his film's success look effortless.

Observational Addendum: As I watched "Away We Go," the feeling snuck up on me that the film was evoking the very same atmosphere and mood as the 1971 Nick Drake song "Pink Moon." Was this purely accidental, or was it on purpose? Backing up my suspicions that the "Pink Moon" allusion is intentional is a masterful soundtrack and score performed by Alexi Murdoch, whose music has clearly been influenced by Drake (two of the songs featured in the movie are titled "Orange Sky" and "Blue Mind") and whose voice sounds like he could be the reincarnation of the late musician. Furthermore, there is a scene where Grace is describing her current boyfriend and tells Burt and Verona that he drives a Cabriolet. For those not in the know, "Pink Moon" rose to fame in 2000 with its prominent use in a VW Cabriolet commercial—as intoxicating as any car ad in memory. Is this Cabriolet mention purely coincidence, or is it just one more of director Sam Mendes' sneaky references? Even if I am off the mark in these observations, I suspect this film, like that gorgeous Cabriolet ad, will forever be intertwined in my mind with "Pink Moon."
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman