‘Away We Go’: Grabbing the reins

June 3, 2009

You’re a couple in your mid-30s, expecting a baby, suddenly shorn of the anchor tethering you to a hometown you’re not that crazy about. Now what?

 

That’s the conundrum confronting Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) in Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go,” from a script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Burt and Verona are only a couple months away from parenthood, when Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) announce that they’re moving to Europe for two years – before the baby is born.

 

Since being close to Burt’s parents (Verona’s are dead) is the only reason they’ve stayed in Connecticut, Burt and Verona decide to hit the road, visiting friends, siblings and relatives around the country, auditioning potential new places to relocate.

 

This low-key, sometimes melancholy comedy is a road movie with a twist. While this couple does have a series of misadventures, there’s never a moment when they lose each other – physically or emotionally – only to reunite with renewed purpose. There’s no break-up, no threat to their relationship, no sudden revelation. No one announces a secret terminal illness that changes their priorities.

 

Instead, as they spend time as houseguests with people from their past, they gain a new sense of just how well they fit together. The more people they visit, the greater this sense of the value of their relationship becomes – because all the other people are such huge disappointments. Funny, yes – to us as viewers – but disillusioning to Burt and Verona as characters.

 

These are, after all, people whom this couple view as potential lifelines for their proposed move. If they’re going to settle in a new city, they reason, they want one where they already know someone so they won’t feel so alone and displaced. But each stop proves to be a miniature disaster in its own way.

 

Verona’s former coworker and her husband (Alison Janney and Jim Gaffigan) are crass and drunk – and it only gets worse from there. Each encounter proves more dispiriting than the one before.

 

Through it all, Burt and Verona discover just how strong their bond is: that they’ve learned to adjust to the other’s quirks and draw strength from each other. Nothing is perfect – but their cross-country odyssey reveals that they just may have it more together than they thought.

 

It would be easy to typecast Mendes as a Brit obsessed with showing the dark side of American suburbia – “American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road” and now this film – but that’s too easy. Yes, there’s rampant dissatisfaction among these characters, but that has less to do with the suburbs than with their own shortcomings.

 

Meanwhile, the relationship between Burt and Verona is unique among movie couples in recent films. As Krasinski plays him, Burt is affable with a goofy streak, but also an eagerness to please Verona that reveals a real understanding of his partner. She, in turn, is a pragmatist who tethers Burt to Earth – but needs him to remind her to lighten up from time to time. The interplay between Rudolph and Krasinski is grounded but ephemeral, a reflection of what real life is like after years in a relationship.

 

“Away We Go” travels a long distance to go a short ways and makes you enjoy the whole trip. In doing so, it pulls viewers into the kind of lives – real, unremarkable, common-sensical – that aren’t often on display in contemporary movies.

 

 

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