You’ve got to give director Sam Mendes credit: He does not make the same movie twice. Perhaps because he’s British, he is endlessly fascinated by the American experience, and in particular by what goes on behind the closed doors of American couples and families. American Beauty and Road to Perdition could not appear less alike on the surface, but underneath, they are both about family, as is his Revolutionary Road. Mendes has followed that film up with one that turns family inside out. His last two films are mirror images of each other.
Revolutionary Road was based on Richard Yates’ most famous work, the unrelentingly tragic chronicle of a young married couple’s self-delusion and disintegration. Away We Go is a comedy based on a script by the ultra-functional and creative married team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Both are successful novelists, magazine editors and social activists. It is not surprising, then, that the two have created as their protagonists that rarest of cinematic commodities — an intelligent, well-adjusted, playful and devoted couple.
Burt and Verona are played by John Krasinski (“The Office”) and Maya Rudolph (formerly of “Saturday Night Live”). She’s six months pregnant with their first child, a development that wasn’t planned but is enthusiastically welcomed. Gradually, however, it dawns on them that they’ve enjoyed a pleasantly prolonged state of arrested development since graduating from college. Both are in their early thirties and self-employed. She makes a living as a freelance medical illustrator (“Crap, I just gave that guy’s brain a vagina”). He sells insurance futures — insurance for insurance companies — over his cell using the fake voice of an older man to instill confidence in his clients. The two have been so wrapped up in each other, they’ve only just noticed they never quite got around to becoming grown-ups.
Luckily, they figure, his parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) live nearby and will be able to offer a few pointers and help with the baby when it arrives. As it turns out, that’s a realistic assumption. Assuming, that is, delivery is induced a month or two ahead of schedule. Because, as the self-absorbed in-laws announce over dinner one evening, they’re moving to Antwerp a month before the child is due and renting their place to strangers.
When the shock wears off, Burt and Verona begin to see the situation’s upside. They live in a poorly heated house that has cardboard in one window. It’s no place for a couple that has its act together, much less one with a newborn to raise. They decide to hit the road, visit friends and family members, and find the perfect place to put down roots.
The odyssey that follows reminded me of the one Bill Murray’s character took in Broken Flowers — and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Over the course of their journey, the two reconnect with old acquaintances who’ve morphed into new people as they’ve adapted to the lives that have sprung up around them.
Some of their encounters are comic. Allison Janney is a gas as Verona’s one-time boss, now a Phoenix mom who’s plastered by early afternoon, loudly lists the indignities having kids has inflicted on her breasts, and can’t imagine why she hasn’t been accepted into the local country club. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Burt’s childhood friend, L.N. She’s an independently wealthy Wisconsin college professor and New Ager so over the top that she boycotts strollers because they make you “push your children away.” As her terminally mellow mate, Josh Hamilton turns in a beautifully bizarro performance. If they gave an Oscar for onscreen smugness, he’d have a lock on this year’s.
Other visits offer glimpses into lives touched by tragedy. The couple fall in love with Montréal and are charmed by the happy houseful of children they meet visiting college friends Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey). The spell is broken, however, by a late-night revelation in a haunting scene set at a downtown club. Last stop is Miami and a downer of a reunion with Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider), whose wife has just abandoned him and their young daughter.
Overall, Away We Go isn’t merely the lightest-hearted, most whimsical movie Mendes has made — that’s a given, considering the body count in this dude’s filmography. It’s a charming road movie that maintains its low-key, amusing tone as it spans the spectrum from the silly (a running gag involving a stethoscope) to the deadly serious (Verona’s parents died when she was a girl, leaving a gaping hole in her sense of self). Both leads are appealing, the dialogue is delicious, and the final scene in which the couple discovers the key to its future in its personal past is a thing of beauty. Lightening up and envisioning a world in which people like Burt and Verona are even possible, Mendes takes us on an all-too-short, strange trip down perhaps the most revolutionary road the director has explored to date.