I’ve never been a big fan of Bob Marley nor have I ever played billiards with any skill. But when a reggae pool hall opened up nearby, and friends dragged me there, I discovered that this combination of two things I wasn’t fond of somehow magically worked in tandem.
So it is with “Away We Go,” which teams director Sam Mendes (“Revolutionary Road,” “American Beauty”) and co-writer Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”), two artists whose previous works have failed to move me but who have, working in concert, managed to pull off a smart and sweet story about a couple on the verge of parenthood trying to make sense out of the next chapter of their lives.
It’s hard to say whether Mendes and Eggers (who co-wrote with his wife, Vendela Vida) complement each other’s weak spots or if one manages to bring out the best in his collaborator, but ultimately it doesn’t matter: Even those who aren’t a fan of either should give “Away We Go” a shot.
Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) are a longtime couple expecting their first child. They’re not married, because Verona doesn’t believe in it, but the two are obviously devoted to each other. When Burt’s parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels), who live nearby, announce that they’ll be moving away to Belgium before the baby is born, Verona and Burt realize that nothing is tethering them to their current location, and so they decide to visit friends and family in other cities to decide where to begin anew.
Their first stop is Phoenix, home of Verona’s old boss Lily (Allison Janney), who’s prone to saying the most inappropriate things at the loudest volume, and her glum, apocalypse-minded husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan). They pop by to see Verona’s sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) in Tucson, where we find out that Verona is still getting over the death of her parents many years earlier.
There’s a comic visit to Madison, where Burt’s childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has become an obnoxiously hippy-dippy and condescending earth mother, followed by a poignant trip to Montreal, where college chums Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) are raising a house full of adopted children but longing to get pregnant on their own as well. (Tom offers a sage bit of parenting advice by noting that he never lets the kids watch anything after “So Long, Farewell” in “The Sound of Music” — they can find out about the whole Nazi thing later, he reasons.)
They wind up in Miami, where Burt’s brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) is dealing with a wife who’s suddenly gone AWOL, throwing Burt into a semi-panic about his own unmarried state.
Over the course of their journey, Verona and Burt struggle with burrowing deeper into adulthood — “We’re 34, and we don’t have the basic stuff figured out!” she laments — but we get a wonderful portrait of two people that fit together perfectly enough to face whatever life should chuck their way. (There’s a running gag involving Burt and the baby’s heart-rate monitor that makes you understand why Verona adores him.)
I haven’t seen a lot of characters like these in American movies — they’re not slackers of the Judd Apatow school, but they have managed to get into their 30s without really committing to the idea of maturity. Their house has cardboard windows (despite the fact that they live somewhere with a pronounced winter), and Burt lapses into a “grown-up” voice when talking to insurance clients on the phone, as though being an adult were an impersonation that he occasionally performs at parties.
Having a child means, ostensibly, no longer being one yourself, and “Away We Go” perfectly captures that shifting of the axis whereby two people transition from just getting by to actually thinking about the future for themselves and for their family-to-be. But this isn’t the dream of mom and dad and 2.5 kids promised after World War II; Burt and Verona are living in today’s uncertain times, and the anxiety of a generation who knows they can’t rely on jobs, banks or government to see them through their lives permeates even the lightest moments of the movie.
That central relationship and its shifting moods are among the strongest facets of Eggers’ and Vida’s screenplay, but it’s the stunning performances by Rudolph and Krasinski that close the deal. They’ve each shined on TV and in small film roles, but this is the first chance that either has had to create such rich movie characters, and they pull it off brilliantly. The supporting cast — particularly Gyllenhaal, Messina and Josh Hamilton (as LN’s partner) — make the most of their individual vignettes, but it’s clearly the lead couple’s show all the way.
I could have lived without Alexi Murdoch’s whispery, singer-songwriter-y score (the one element of “Away We Go” that’s going to immediately age badly), but that’s about the only thing that sticks out in an otherwise charming and surprising film.
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