It’s no Revolutionary Road, but Away We Go, Sam Mendes’ latest comment on coupling, is a funny, zippy take on love and growing up.
Away We Go is your classic road movie; the two protagonists—in this case, a mostly happily unmarried couple—use all manner of methods, from planes to trains to automobiles, to get to where it is that they happen to be going. And like all road movies, the true journey is really an internal one; in this case, traveling from protracted adolescence to belated adulthood, and ultimately, parenthood.
Of course, to hit the road in a road movie, you need a catalyst to send your trekkers hurtling out the door. In the case of Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) the central characters in director Sam Mendes’ flawed but funny film, the trigger is a pregnancy that is both expected and unexpected. How they discover they’re pregnant is also unexpected, and perhaps not suitable discussion for a family Web site. Let’s just say that it doesn’t involve peeing on a stick. Verona and Burt realize that in order to create a family, they need to be surrounded by family.
Problem is, family isn’t so easy to come by. Burt’s folks (played to self-absorbed perfection by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) have rather inconveniently decided that now is as good a time as any to move to Belgium. Verona’s parents died years ago, and their deaths still haunt her. (Dead black/biracial parents might be a new trend in interracial movie romances. In I Love You, Man, Rashida Jones’ parents were similarly dispatched.)
And so off they go, armed with a portable fetal Doppler kit, traveling the continent in search of a place to call home. Along the way, they encounter friends and family with their own issues: a passive-aggressive earth mama, brilliantly played by Maggie Gyllenhaal; Verona’s boozing ex-boss (Allison Janney), given to berating her kids with TMI pronouncements; and the Brad-and-Angelina-esque couple who’ve adopted a multicolored tribe but are no happier for having done so.
The dialogue is zippy, pointing its barbs at benign liberal racism—“How black will the baby be?”—and gleefully sending up the sanctimony of the preschooler-breast-feeding, stroller-eschewing zealotry of 21st-century parenting. But for all the humor and high jinks, a sense of melancholy pervades the film. This is a story about coming to terms with loss and with making peace with what is left.
Mendes, who directed last year’s Oscar-nominated Revolutionary Road, starring his wife, Kate Winslet, and Leonardo DiCaprio, seems consumed with documenting couplehood. But Away We Go, written by real-life literary couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, is the antithesis of Revolutionary Road. Where the Revolutionary Road couple tears each other apart with a breathtaking savagery, Verona and Burt are a sweetly unified force, the straight couple looking warily at a world full of crazies.
Which is part of the problem with the film: There’s not enough there there. Burt and Verona posit themselves as the 30-something poster children for arrested development, but the whole premise of the film contradicts that declaration. They’ve got it together enough to hold down jobs that allow them to travel at will, whipping out credit cards, hopping on planes and crashing in hotel rooms from Phoenix to Montreal. And Verona’s reason for never wanting to marry just doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny.
But these are quibbles. You could do worse than spend 99 minutes watching Rudolph transform herself from a Saturday Night Live comedy veteran to a serious actress of subtly and range.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.