Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski wonders if most pregnant women are raring to go on a cross-country road trip.
Our review of Away We Go, published September 29th, 2009, is also available.
Verona: "Burt, are we screw-ups?"
Burt: "…we're not screw-ups."
Verona: "We have a cardboard window."
NOTE: Images are not taken from this Blu-ray release and do not reflect its picture quality.
In telling the story of a 30-something couple trying to decide where to live, Away We Go splices together a number of cinematic subgenres: the road trip movie, the we're-having-a-baby movie, and the visits-with-eccentric-family-members movie. Then it adds a thick coating of what I'd describe as an "acoustic hipster" sensibility. This Sam Mendes feature (written by the husband and wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida) might sound a little busy on paper, but it actually feels simple and sweet when viewed.
That being said, this cross-country journey isn't a perfect trip…
Facts of the Case
Though they're not screw-ups, Burt (John Krasinski, The Office) and Verona (Maya Rudolph, Saturday Night Live) are feeling the need to get their lives in better order before the impending arrival of their first child. When they're surprised by the news that Burt's parents (Catherine O'Hara, Best in Show, and Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale) will be moving to Belgium before the kid is born, they decide to move, too. They'll go on a big road trip, visiting friends and family all over the place, and will pick the best spot to start their little family.
In addition to Verona's childless sister (Carmen Ejogo, Kidnapped), the pair visits lots of people with kids who exhibit lots of different parenting styles: an old boss in Phoenix (Allison Janney, Juno), a distant cousin in Madison (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary), college friends in Montreal (Chris Messina, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Melanie Lynskey, Heavenly Creatures), and Burt's brother in Miami (Paul Schneider, Lars and the Real Girl). Each of these visits provides good and bad (and horrible) ideas on how to raise kids for the parents-to-be protagonists.
During its theatrical release, Away We Go caught some flak from critics who found the lead characters to be irritatingly self-satisfied. The film goes to great lengths to fight this perception by creating another set of characters who are far more self-satisfied, but the impression remains that Burt and Verona seem to have strong values and opinions that they believe are superior to the values and opinions of many people they visit. Far from ruining the movie, though, this characterization instead polarizes its audience. If you're of a similar mindset to the central couple—whose side we're supposed to be on as they meet and judge these friends and relatives—then Away We Go may really speak to you. If you're not, then I doubt you'll find much to connect with here.
So what is that mindset? Burt and Verona seem to fall considerably left of center, but not all the way at the most radical end of the political spectrum. They drive a rusty old Volvo, they wear mittoves, Burt's got a scruffy beard, Verona is an artist, and they fantasize about their kids learning to canoe. At the same time, one of their visits gives them an opportunity to display their repulsion at a more extreme variety of smug super-lefties—a kind that those of us living in the San Francisco Bay Area know all too well! Burt's distant cousin LN (Gyllenhaal) and her husband practice extreme attachment parenting, litter their home with expensive furnishings from every culture other than their own, and seem to look down on almost everyone, in that peculiarly tranquil, faux-hippie way. LN, for example, prohibits "the three S's" from her home: no separation, no sugar, no strollers. When unsuspecting Burt and Verona buy her an expensive stroller, she's horror-struck and protests, "I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away from me?" Burt and Verona's marked disapproval of these folks sets a kind of boundary and seeks to reassure the audience that our central couple isn't too out there.
For me, Burt and Verona worked well as characters and as my tour guides through a series of vignettes about the other parents—though Rudolph's Verona seemed considerably more likable than Krasinski's Burt. Burt comes off as a bumbling, deer-in-headlights kind of father to be; he's just trying to figure it all out, but he never seems to make much emotional progress. It's not without its charm, but compared to the inflections of warmth, sadness, and maturity that Rudolph layers Verona with, Krasinski's performance feels a bit simplistic, and even stiff at times. Undoubtedly, both leads give their best performances when they're interacting with the film's more sympathetic characters. Seeing them in Montreal with their college friends and in Miami with Burt's brother—and especially in their moments alone together—we get a sense of the love and familiarity between them, and of their charisma as a couple. They're at their best in simple moments, like the little play they perform with stuffed animals to entertain Burt's niece.
Indeed, Away We Go really finds its strongest footing in this final third of its running time, when we leave behind satirical caricatures (Burt's parents, Verona's old boss, LN and her family) and start to visit three-dimensional characters. The aforementioned caricatures are played by some big-name acting talent who usually shine in whatever roles they're given, but these scenes fall surprisingly flat. I was shocked that I hardly got a chuckle out of O'Hara or Janney—even Krasinski, for that matter—but much of the comedy in this film just doesn't seem to work. Watch Janney's inappropriate lush try to plant an unwelcome kiss. Not funny. Watch Krasinski trying to show off for Verona and then tripping over a low wall. Not funny. Though Gyllenhaal nails her insufferable character, this whole sequence feels much more awkward and irritating than amusing. The only supporting actor who really got me laughing was Jim Gaffigan as the old boss's beleaguered husband, who goes off on a fantastic, apocalyptic rant at a Phoenix dog track.
It's when Away We Go stops trying so hard to be a laugh-out-loud comedy that it becomes a really good movie. At that point, we get scenes that feel fully real, even moving. Burt and Verona's peek into the lives of Tom and Munch, a Montreal couple with a pack of adopted kids, is both inspiring and sad, providing them with simple and well-articulated truths about parenting like, "You have to be so much better than you ever thought." And their climactic conversation on a trampoline, followed by their ultimate decision about where they will live, provides a beautiful, understated conclusion to their story.
Universal gives Away We Go a solid Blu-Ray presentation on a technical level and in terms of special features, but to me this is still the type of film that doesn't really need Blu-Ray. Most consumers should be perfectly satisfied with a standard DVD presentation here, since neither the video nor audio track seems to cry out for the extra-fancy treatment and since there don't seem to be substantive Blu-Ray exclusive special features.
In the audiovisual realm, Away We Go has a very focused vibe. Let's put it this way: between the muted image, the warm tones, the acoustic soundtrack, and the soft-spoken leads, this is a film that wants to tuck you in for night-night with a cup of chamomile tea. Accordingly, the image quality doesn't aspire to razor-sharpness nor does the soundtrack flex a lot of big auditory muscles. But the disc delivers on the filmmakers' aspirations well, with rich colors and a nice sense of immersion in the gentle melodies of singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch. Murdoch's tunes are the pitch-perfect accompaniment to this story, infusing the travels of this young couple with a sort of wistful beauty.
For special features, we get two featurettes and a commentary track with Mendes, Eggers, and Vida. It's not a ton of material, but I'm not sure what more I'd want to see for this type of film (maybe a cast commentary?). The box also touts BD-Live features, but no extra content specific to the film. One of the featurettes is a standard, making-of piece, clocking in at 15 minutes. In it, we experience a little of Krasinski and Rudolph's behind-the-scenes goofiness, hear Mendes speak articulately about the story, and discover that this nation-trotting adventure was shot primarily in Connecticut. The second featurette spends six minutes sharing details with us about the film's "green" production. In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, the cast and crew drank from canteens instead of disposable bottles, recycled and composted, used recyclable wood to build their sets, used bio-diesel trucks whenever possible for their gear, and shuttled the stars around in hybrid SUVs. Their commendable policies deserve some publicity and hopefully will spread among other environmentally conscious Hollywood productions. The commentary track is fun and upbeat, with a good amount of insight about the story being shared. Interestingly, Eggers and Vida wrote the story in 2005 when they were facing the prospect of raising their first child in Bush-era America. They joke amiably about how the characters' visit to Canada has a different resonance now, when as Americans "we can be proud again!" In sorting out blame for some of the film's unfunny attempts at humor, the commentary also provides some clues.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've got one major complaint about a very minor aspect of this Blu-Ray release. Having just watched another Universal Blu-Ray the day before I sat down with this one, I noticed that the studio seems to use the same "high-tech" feeling interface for all of its films. So when Away We Go loads up its menu screen, you see the calming colors and hear the soothing music of the film, but laid on top of that is the sleek, metallic design of the menu buttons with harsh electronic clicks and beeps sounding as you scroll through your options. The mismatch is laughable and distracting. Unless Universal wants to focus solely on action and sci-fi releases from here on out, I'd strongly recommend that they spend a couple of extra bucks to customize each Blu-Ray disc's menu.
Away We Go is a film with a really specific sensibility, and if it's not yours you may not enjoy the trip. Though it could have been a more universal story about beginning this new phase of adult life, the filmmakers make the bold and smart choice to address a narrower audience, but to do so more powerfully. Viewers on its wavelength will discover in it an evocative little gem about starting a family.
Not guilty, even though these two clearly should have ended up in Portland.
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