(International premiere, Edinburgh International Film Festival)
Coming just four months after the UK release of his last film, Revolutionary Road, Away We Go is something of a departure for respected film and theatre director Sam Mendes. The compositional beauty and sinister, or, at least, restless, undertone for which he is renowned have been replaced with single-take scenes and light-hearted camaraderie between the protagonists, as well as a cast of relative unknowns in the lead roles.
Maya Rudolph and The American Office’s John Krasinski play Verona and Burt, a co-habiting couple in their early 30s who learn that they’re expecting a baby. Not having put much planning into this turn they expect life to continue much as before, until Burt’s less than devoted parents decide to realise a dream to move to Belgium before the baby is born.
With no other family nearby the couple perceives an opportunity to make a huge lifestyle change, and bring up their baby wherever they choose. Central to their decision is the desirability or otherwise of being near a range of contrasting friends, family-members and ex-colleagues, prompting an airline-based ‘road trip’ taking in Phoenix, Montreal and Miami.
Ostensibly a search for somewhere to live, the couple’s journey is actually a whirlwind review of parenting styles; Verona having lost her own parents a decade earlier. We therefore witness encounters with The West Wing’s Allison Janney’s ‘inappropriate mom’, who discusses her daughter’s sexuality and ass-size in front of her kids while proudly boasting her own craziness, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s archetypal new age mother, who thinks strollers are the devil incarnate, the college friends with a large, multi-racial brood of adopted children, who have suffered five miscarriages after ‘leaving it too late’, and the brother whose wife has just abandoned her bewildered husband and child.
Unfortunately, almost all of these characters are cringe-inducing stereotypes, crudely sketched and often over-acted – particularly in the case of Gyllenhaal.
Although obviously striving for a light-hearted tone the film’s jokes are largely juvenile and boorish, and Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers’ script is surprisingly weak. Krasinski and Rudolph put in good performances but their basic characters also fail to ring true: his more the dopey overgrown student than the intended insurance salesman and neither giving the viewer much reason to believe in their regard for the other.
Rather than demonstrating the success of their relationship, in fact, Mendes simply tells us repeatedly how deeply in love they are, and the ‘me and you versus the world’ angle upon which the film depends fails as a result. Certainly the rather lofty conclusion the couple draws as the film ends doesn’t inspire much confidence in its audience, as well as being dubious on all kinds of practical levels.
Ultimately, Away We Go is a road movie which doesn’t encompass a convincing journey, certainly in terms of its lead characters’ experiences and development. With suggestions of both laziness and smugness the film does sadly give the impression of having been dashed off quickly, and is a surprisingly average release from a director with such achievements as Jarhead and American Beauty under his belt.