Monday, June 15, 2009

Movie Review: Away We Go

Away We Go *** ½
Directed by:
Sam Mendes
Written By: Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida.
Starring: John Krasinski (Burt Farlander), Maya Rudolph (Verona De Tessant), Carmen Ejogo (Grace De Tessant), Catherine O'Hara (Gloria Farlander), Jeff Daniels (Jerry Farlander), Allison Janney (Lily), Jim Gaffigan (Lowell), Maggie Gyllenhaal (LN), Josh Hamilton (Roderick), Chris Messina (Tom Garnett), Melanie Lynskey (Munch Garnett), Paul Schneider (Courtney Farlander).

Director Sam Mendes is known for his dark movies. His first film, American Beauty, looked at the dark side of suburbia, and strangely that is probably his lightest film so far. He followed that one up with Road to Perdition, a very dark drama about murder and the relationship between fathers and sons, Jarhead, a surrealistic war movie, where everyone is slightly demented, and last year’s great Revolutionary Road, which was an even darker view of suburbia than American Beauty, because it left out all the humor. After all those films, is it any wonder he decided to make a film as lightweight and entertaining as Away We Go? The film still deals with some fairly weighty subject matter, and yet it remains funny throughout. I defy you to get through this movie without a smile on your face.

Burt (John Krasinki) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) have been together for years, but remain unmarried. She refuses to marry him, because she does not want to get married without her parents, who are dead. But they are fully committed to each other anyway. When Verona gets pregnant, they decide that it is finally time to get their acts together. When Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels) announce their plans to move to Belgium a month before their grandchild is born, Burt and Verona decide that its time for them to make a change as well. They lived where they did to be close to the parents, but with them gone; there is no reason to stay there. Their jobs are such that they can do them anywhere. So, they go on a cross country journey to see other friends, and family members, and decide the best place for them to move to. It is an eventful journey.

Every stop they make, they come across dysfunctional people in dysfunctional relationships. This starts with Burt’s parents, who seem extremely happy, but are so self involved they cannot see the pain they are causing. Then there is Lily and Lowell (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan), old friends from Chicago, who are completely screwed up in opposite directions. Lily overcompensates for her depression by being overly cheerful, while Lowell has fully given into his, and makes one depressing remark after another – drinking the whole time. Verona finds comfort in her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo), but being with her also brings up too many painful memories. An old friend of Burt’s LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), has become the stereotypical hippie professor, living with her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton), and their kids, who all sleep in one bed. Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynsky) seem perfectly happy, with their multi-racial adopted children, but are falling apart inside because of their inability to have their own kids. Finally, Burt’s brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) is upset because his wife just left him, and has also left their daughter behind for him to raise by themselves.

Everywhere they turn, Burt and Verona are faced with people who are messed up, and well on their way of screwing up their children. Even an innocent run in at a hotel with a mother and her young son, leads to the boy confessing that he tried to smother his baby sister, but it didn’t work. Don’t worry though, he’ll try again.

I realize that I am making Away We Go sound like a drama, but it is anything but. Every encounter they have is hilarious in its own way, and the film is filled with one great one liner after another. What makes it interesting though is that the jokes never seem to be there just to be jokes, but grow out of the characters. It is to the supporting cast’s credit that they are all able to make fully formed people out of their roles in only a few short scenes. Gyllenhall and Lynskey are especially memorable. And it is to the credit of Krasinski and Rudolph that they maintain their composure throughout the whole movie. They are essentially the straight men in the movie, allowing everyone else to bounce around them. They also make us love and understand their characters – they realize that they are all they really need to be happy. There is something quite beautiful about that.

Mendes has always been a great filmmaker, and he keeps the movie on track throughout. It never flies off the rail, despite all the eccentricity in the film. The soundtrack, mostly made up of songs by Alexi Murdoch, is also quite good. I have always liked the idea of a movie being scored to one artist’s songs, and Murdoch’s quirkier little love songs fit perfectly in the movie. With all the big movies this summer, it remains to be seen whether or not Away We Go will find its spot in the marketplace, but it sound. It is quietly hilarious and insightful. One of the best films of the year so far.

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