2009 | Director: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) | Writers: Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida
No one’s ever accused me of being a pretentious film critic. Sure, I’m a little more style-conscious than others—I wait to put on my monocle until after I’ve fastened my spats and powdered my wig—but then, my pristine garb is usually spattered with bugs and dirt by the time I’ve finished rollerblading to my local theater. I doubt any of the cinema employees find it pretentious when I pick up trod-upon popcorn in the hall and put it in my bindle for later, either.
Thus it pains me to call such a winning film as “Away We Go” the dreaded p-word, for as pervasive as its self-important sense of cool may be (mostly in the post-gen-X style and attitude purposely worn thin by nearly every character), it’s also a brilliant rumination on impending parenthood, and a remarkable showcase for impeccable comic acting—especially from its perfectly-cast leads. Most interestingly, the movie features characters who find the value of judging others even as the audience (me) learns not to condemn them for their newfound parental discretion.
“Away” stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a loving, bright couple who learn that their looming child’s flighty grandparents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) are moving away, causing them to set out across North America in an effort to find a new home in which to start their family. Along the way they visit friends (played nicely by the likes of Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Chris Messina) who inadvertently show them the pitfalls of raising children too stridently one way or another; meanwhile Burt tries to convince Verona to marry him, and she attempts to put her past in the ground before she gives birth.
There’s an explicit superiority apparent in Burt and Verona—they’re smart, friendly, kind, well-tempered, and functional—as compared to the hilarious families they come in contact with (the film almost plays like a series of thematic sketches, such as Hipsters vs. Suburbanites, or Hipsters vs. holier-than-thou Intellectuals), but I believe that was director Sam Mendes’ intention. After all, they should seem better; unlike characters in most comedies, Burt and Verona are truly good people—complex, scared, and naïve, but good—while the other families, the “afters” to the protagonists’ “before,” bear all the pathologies of concentration camp survivors.
Yes, the characters are written (by noted author Dave Eggers and wife Vendela Vida) self-righteously, but the actors bury that with heartfelt, good-natured (and career-making) performances. Rudolph is marvelous as an orphaned illustrator whose calculated sobriety offsets the unbridled optimism and upbeat humor of Burt, played by Krasinksi with effortless charm and a meticulous sense of comedic timing that eventually cracks to show the character’s hidden vulnerability. In fact, if it wasn’t for the shaggy hair, second-hand dresses, and Rivers Cuomo-esque glasses, the duo might not have come off as uppity in the least.
But, really, a little pretentiousness is more fun. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about “Away” is watching Burt and Verona’s faces fall as they grow from being merely quietly stuck-up hipsters living in the woods to people horrified by what kind of parents they might become. If they haven’t earned the right to judge the awful behavior of their peers, then who has?
In the end, the parents-to-be are simply two people trying to define “home” for themselves, and while the answers at which they arrive may seem simple, they don’t make the couple’s journey any less meaningful. The last shots of “Away” imply that Burt and Verona, despite the hope that grounds them, have no way of knowing if they’ll fall into the traps their weather-beaten friends now inhabit.
Rating: Four of Five Stars