People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
  DVD Review: Away We Go

Normally I don’t like director Sam Mendes’ movies much; I find there’s a distance to his work, an emotional standoffishness, a sense that he’s peering down on the characters from a celestial perch. It’s why I don’t really care for American Beauty, why I was so disappointed by his morose, too-serious Road to Perdition (based on a fun, pulpy graphic novel) and his portrait of misery in 1950s America, Revolutionary Road (read my full review here). Maybe it’s his theater background, but he adopts an almost clinical view of the characters in his movies that just turns me off. They’re not necessarily bad movies, I just personally can’t into them. Which was part of the reason that Away We Go impressed me so much; there’s a warmth to the film that I haven’t seen in any of Mendes’ other films, which I attribute at least in part to Mendes working with novelists-turned-screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Away We Go showed me a side of Mendes I didn’t know existed, and I hope I see more of it, because the movie is amazingly good.

Away We Go is about a young couple (played by John Krasinski of The Office and Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph) expecting their first child. They’re not married – he keeps proposing, she keeps turning him down, which they’ve turned into a mini-comedy routine to amuse their friends – but they want to settle down to start their new family in the right place, and the film is basically a road movie following Burt and Verona as they travel across North America visiting family and friends to find the perfect place to begin the next chapter of their lives. Along the way they encounter the requisite cast of oddballs – and a few normal folks – as they seek advice on raising a child.

The first thing that struck me about Away We Go is how well the movie balances comedy and real emotion. Most movies that go for this sort of thing really seem more like comedies with more dramatic stuff than usual, or dramas with more jokes than you might normally expect. But Away We Go manaKrasinski and Rudolph as parents-to-beges to sit pretty much perfectly between both worlds, and it works surprisingly well. It’s the sort of thing Eggers excels at in his books (I’ve read his first two, they’re both quite good), and because he and co-screenwriter Vendela Vida are themselves a married couple with a few kids of their own (and they’re both charming and funny people, as are Krasinki’s Burt and Rudolph’s Verona), there’s obviously a lot of autobiographical stuff in the movie. Mendes shows a flair for comic timing in Away We Go that I wouldn’t have guessed he had based on his previous movies that I’ve seen, which have all been serious to the point of being oppressive. But it seems the involvement of Eggers and Vida gave Mendes a warmer emotional framework for his visual talents (which are not insignificant).

But as much as I’m raving about the writing and direction in Away We Go, the movie wouldn’t have the impact it does if it weren’t for Krasinski and Rudolph, both of whom deliver hilarious and touching performances. I knew the former about both from their previous work, but the fact that they both genuinely moved me wasn’t something I was expecting. Brilliant stuff.

As good as Krasinski and Rudolph are, the supporting cast of Away We Go is also uniformly great. Jeff Daniels and Catharine O’Hara are both so good as Burt’s parents that their impact is felt far beyond their once scene in the movie. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a treat as a hippie professor who can’t stop passive-aggressively judging Burt and Verona with backhanded compliments and condescension. (All of it paying off beautifully in the scene where the typically non-confrontational Burt has finally had enough.) And Allison Janney is spectRudolph with the great Allison Janneyacularly funny as one of Verona’s former co-workers, now rather unhappily married (though always in a good mood, as she’s perpetually drunk) in Arizona with a couple of kids she barely pays attention to.

Away We Go has a genuine heart that hundreds of other movies with bigger budgets and bigger stars try desperately to capture, but Mendes, Eggers and Vida make it seem effortless. On paper, this movie probably couldn’t be less up my alley unless it had musical numbers in it, but I loved it. I’m known among friends for my hatred for hokey sentimentality, but Away We Go is truly moving – and funny – in ways I wasn’t prepared for. My life is about as far from that of a prospective parent as you could imagine, but I was on the journey with these characters 100%. Away We Go is a beautiful, charming, funny movie, and I recommend it highly.



There are only a couple of extras on the DVD, but this isn’t really a movie that needs tons of featurettes. There’s a commentary track from Mendes and co-writers Eggers and Vida, and the three share a nice, warm, chemistry. Eggers and Vida are both funny, and their take on the production is interesting, as Away We Go was their first foray into the world of movies. There’s also a short mini-documentary about the making of the movie, which is fairly standard stuff, though it seems to have been made during production, and Eggers and Vida are conspicuously absent (which I only noticed because everyone kept talking about how great the script was, but there’s no actual input from the writers). Finally, there’s a featurette on ‘green filmmaking,’ as the Away We Go team went to great lengths to make the production carbon-neutral. It’s an interesting topic, environmentalism and moviemaking – I hadn’t really considered until watching what a wasteful enterprise filmmaking can be – and they certainly deserve attention for their efforts.

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