Universal // 2009 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // September 29th, 2009
[on watching The Sound of Music with another couple's kids]
Verona: "Hey, so the movie ends when the Von Trapps go to sleep?"
Tom: "Yeah, we sort of skip it."
Verona: "You skip the Nazis?"
Tom: "We kind of figured 'What's the point?' you know?"
Director Sam Mendes got nominated for multiple awards after making his 2008 film featuring a couple with the perfect life spending two hours whining about how unhappy they are. Revolutionary Road could easily be summed up as "beautiful people bitch about having beautiful things while pining for Paris." A little more quietly during the following year, the director released Away We Go which makes the perfect counterpoint with a couple who is happy with only having each other. It's a warm and light film in comparison, and surprisingly more romantic comedy than anything else Mendes has done. It's the charming tale of a quirky couple who discover on a road trip they can design any life they want for each other and their child.
John Krasinkski (The Office) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live) play an unmarried pair anxiously awaiting the arrival of their first child. They are living near his mom (Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration) and dad (Jeff Daniels, The Purple Rose of Cairo), but the prospective doting grandparents announce they are moving to another country within a month of the baby being due. The couple decide since they both essentially work from home and are no longer tied to one place, they want to visit family and friends around the country to decide where the perfect setting is to start their life as parents. Along the way they meet a horrifying set of characters who all have opinions on how they should raise a child. Included in the travelogue are characters played by Allison Janney (The West Wing), Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight), Josh Hamilton (Broken English), and Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures).
Away We Go is essentially a road movie filled with quirky characters, and the filmmakers have found a great cast to bring it to life. The main couple travel from city to city, and see different skylines and contrasting families. Each set of parents have constructed a way to make their unit work. They all seem perfect or at least fine at first, but crack under close inspection displaying spectacular dysfunction and despair. The script is smartly written and the direction assured. Away We Go reminded me of great character films from the '70s such as Harold and Maude or The Graduate because it is concerned with internal emotions far more than actions or ideas. It's all driven by dialogue and people, capturing an essential time in life when circumstances dictate we grow up a little more. There is no surprise the conversations feels smart and literate when we consider they come from the romantic team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Eggers is most noted for his celebrated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, while his wife is also a successful novelist in her own right. Picking Sam Mendes as director simply insures the whole thing will look and feel stylish and well thought out.
I wondered when I saw theatrical previews for Away We Go if you could take two people known for broad televised comedy and tone them down enough to carry a film. Any worries were unfounded, because Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski knock the acting right out of the park with subtly nuanced performances that are tight and focused. They are a believable pair that you root for all the way through. What's so awesome in this story is that they start deeply in love, and they come out the other side feeling the same with no major crisis. Most films would feel the need to throw in unnecessary conflict, but wisely this smart script realizes tension comes from these two standing up against the world. The supporting cast is great, as expected, but it's really the leads that anchor this one. All that said, watching Allison Janney is always a hoot while Maggie Gyllenhaal seems at home in the indie world. They both stand out easily with their extremes of a mother who seems not to care at all about her ignored children and an earth mother who clings to hers irrationally every moment of the day and night.
Universal has released a nicely appointed DVD with a fine transfer and nice extras. The video image looks clear even though production design dictated a drab palette with washed out tones. Definition is fine, and there's no digital noise anywhere. The surround sound mix concentrates itself on the front channels as you would expect with a dialogue driven film. The full surround treatment really only makes a difference when the Alexi Murdoch songs kick in full force. Extras include two featurettes on the production of the film with the first being the "making of" spotlight on actors talking about how fun the film was to make. The second showcases efforts to make Away We Go the first truly green film with emphasis on recycling and responsible use of resources. This one feels a little too self-congratulatory to really work, but nice to think they are trying. The best supplement is the director and writers' commentary, which features the talkative trio discussing the film's source and production at great length.
If there is any flaw to the film it may be that it feels small and trendy, an independent feature that looks down at lesser comedies. It certainly has a pedigree as well as a smart tone and pace. Some people will find that off-putting. At the same time, some more serious minded cinema enthusiasts may label this one as too light and fluffy to be a serious contender. The film certainly got lost in the shuffle between not being heavy hitting enough to get serious praise, but not slick and pop enough to grab the multiplex crowd. It's going to be hard to find the right audience, but if you're smart enough to enjoy a character-driven comedy that shows a twinge of sadness now and then you are in the right place.
Away We Go is a hip and hopeful romantic comedy bursting at the seams with great talent. Director Sam Mendes continues his unusual look at American couples, script writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida enter the movie business formally, and Maya Rudolph along with John Krasinski turn in surprisingly subtle character studies to carry it all along. It could be seen as the conclusion to a triptych for Mendes including this project, Revolutionary Road, and starting with American Beauty. Universal gives us a nice DVD which doles out everything you could possibly need to become a fan, and it's not hard to champion this little road trip of self discovery.
Guilty of being one of the best films of 2009, and a surprisingly hip and smart romantic comedy. Away We Go is free to go on and find its perfect place on the discriminating shelves of indie film fans.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R