Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Away We Go

I’m trying not to write off Sam Mendes, as many of my film-watching brethren seem to have already done. It is hard to deny, though, five projects into his career as a movie director, that the man's films live and die by their scripts’ power to work with (or despite) his lazy, surface-level ideas. Following on the heels of last year's abysmal Oscar-bait Revolutionary Road, Mendes turns in Away We Go, another melancholy film about a melancholy couple trying to find a way to live in a melancholy America.

Trading the monotonous rage of Road for atonal quirk, Away We Go presents a series of six vignettes cut together as the premise for our heroes Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) to jet-set around North America in search of the place where they might settle down. The episodes are alternately emotionally devastating or broadly comedic, and saddled as they are with being the emotional core of an all-too-often cold and unfeeling film, we are left with no choice but to be humbly impressed with the work of the two leads. Krasinski and Rudolph never seem adrift as actors - the way their characters do in the film - and they anchor the whole enterprise in a calm and collected manner of which I can't expect many other actors their age to be capable. Those of us familiar with their stellar television work will be impressed anew.

The hapless pair is three months away from having their first baby, and in the first act we discover them holed up like hermits in a cozy trailer in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, faxing and phoning in their meager livings. Upon learning that Burt's nearby parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) are taking off to Belgium for two years, the deserted quickly become the deserters. They pack up to move to a) Tuscon, where Verona has an old co-worker; b) Phoenix, where Verona has a sister; c) Madison, where Burt has a cousin; d) Montreal, where they share a happily-married pair of friends from college or; e) Miami, where Burt has a brother.

Issues of abandonment (or the fear thereof) and parenthood (or the fear thereof) run rampant throughout the film, and Mendes does his best to push them off the frame so we can laugh at the antics of the wacky twosomes along with Burt and Verona, our straight-man audience surrogates. There is a sense of impending doom for everyone they visit, and it seems as though married co-writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida (Dave – Burt; Vendela – Verona; coincidence?) intended that doom to transfer over to Burt and Verona. Whether explicitly stating that they don't know how to raise a kid or implying that they aren't going to be ready to do so (as they abandon the hosts who really and truly need them in their lives for the next stop on their road trip), it's hard to assume that Burt and Verona are going to be fine just because they have each other. The script comes lined with references to their un-married coupledom being on the brink of something less stable than either are willing to admit, and yet at the film's end, Love Is All They Need. It's either a cop-out or simply a much darker story than Mendes and his producers had any intention of allowing into our theaters.

What we have here is essentially a feature-length kiss-off to the potential for happiness if you're young and in love and living in America. It's clearly essential to the film's message (if it can be presumed to have one) that the only place Burt and Verona ever agree they would be happy is in Canada. But their reasons for leaving Montreal and not going back are hazy and underwritten. Several strong supporting actors supply pathos in spades whenever they are allowed on screen (Chris Messina and Paul Schneider both offer monologues that would qualify as Oscar Clips if they weren't delivered with such humanity and sincerity) but Mendes wants to juggle subtext and meaning with quirk and comedy. He fails to find a balance.

It’s a film about a chronically uncomfortable couple plagued by wanderlust and trying to make a home out of nothing. Nothing is more or less what they end up with. That’s pretty nasty for an ostensibly happy Hollywood ending. Given the thorny issues raised throughout the film, I hate to think that “Home Is Where the Heart Is … Maybe” was the best they could’ve come up with. I applaud Mendes for trying to bust out of his mold after bottoming out with his perennial awards swill, but it’s a shame when the material here might’ve yielded something truly meaningful to the underrepresented loners of America always boxed in by Hollywood as jesters, manic-depressives or misanthropes.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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