It’s the GenX’er paradox: you don’t feel like a grown-up, but life has a way of making you into one. In the case of Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski), it’s the imminent arrival of their first child that brings this scruffy thirtysomething hipster couple to the precipice of a monumental life change. You know the type: she watches exercise videos for entertainment, and he sports the nerd-glasses and scraggly beard of a McSweeney’s-era beatnik.
The pair abandon their shabby, unheated, cardboard-patched house in Colorado for an episodic quest. What they are searching for is a berth for their unborn child: a cobbled-together family when their own are emotionally or physically unavailable. Verona’s parents died years earlier. And Bruce’s narcissistic, PC parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) — who initially gave them a reason to settle in Colorado — have decided that, rather than stick around for the birth of their first grandchild, they are going to indulge a lifelong dream of moving to Europe.
Fearful that, in Verona’s words, they may be “fuck ups” (in typical gendered fashion, the woman does all the worrying for the both of them), the pair set out on a whirlwind road trip. Stopping in Phoenix, Montreal, Miami, and Madison, Wis., they are on a reconnaissance mission to reconnect with the friends and family members who might help them form an improvised home.
Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) from a script by literary hotshot Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and wife Vendela Vida, Away We Go taps into a bittersweet dimension to contemporary life: the ability to forge your own path in an America where family is not necessarily required, and the essential loneliness of that proposition.
Along the way, Burt and Verona encounter various degrees of familial dysfunction, like in the household of a former co-worker in Phoenix (Juno‘s Allison Janney), who is afflicted with a Tourette’s-like propensity for blurting out her every thought and mocking her young daughter’s “dykey” clothes and her own breastfeeding-ravaged breasts. Eggers and Vida rival Judd Apatow and his bromance ilk in the frequency with which they milk each naughty mention of breasts and vaginas for comedic value.
Though Eggers fans will recognize the author’s tell-tale generational navel-gazing and other autobiographical details (Verona’s dead parents), the script clearly bears Vida’s imprint too: she never misses a chance to point out how crudely people react to the sight of a pregnant woman. “You’re soooo big” is the typical freak show greeting Verona endures. Further indication of a girl-approach to PC bullshit: in leafy, collegiate Madison, Burt and Verona stop in at a friend of the family, a crunchy college professor (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a layabout hippie husband who has obnoxiously elevated motherhood to a sacred cult with only one member. In Away We Go‘s relationship roller coaster, the couple are privy to divorce, miscarriages, mental illness, and garden-variety selfishness as they check their own parental barometer against the world.
Eggers and Vida have a bone to pick with these looney families, but seem especially hell-bent to rake wildfire political correctness — with its Native American art and communal beds — over the coals for an essential lack of humanity. Some of the funniest, but also most outlandish scenes, involve the epic self-regard and cruelty doled out by Burt’s parents and those smug Madison hippies. The film feels generational, focusing on how Egger and Vida’s generation defines family not by material security, but by deeper values. But it also feels intensely personal.
Away We Go is to be applauded on many fronts: from its exceptionally ordinary-looking leads, who counteract the usual glamorous take on slackerdom, to the integrity of its introspective script centered on a Juno-esque consideration of family, enduring love, and the responsibilities of parenting.
The film’s downfall, however, is the kind of forced cuteness of such indie endeavors: the comical glimpse of a very pregnant Verona moving at ant-speed toward the camera on a moving airport sidewalk or the fact that she has stapled their travel itinerary to the inside of Burt’s jacket.
On many, many occasions, Away We Go could have gone for much more subtle, carefully observed comedy. But the writers and director prefer broad, bellowing caricature in order to more clearly enunciate Verona and Bruce’s us-against-them mission. Away We Go is a vast improvement, in matters of heart and soul, on Mendes’ excessively lauded American Beauty. While that film’s primary insight was the banality of suburbia, Away We Go taps into less well-trod territory. It plumbs the rootlessness of many people’s lives, and also the human compulsion to forge a family.
There is a core of sadness and loneliness in Away We Go, but too often Mendes drowns those plaintive elements in bellowing yuks and overplayed comedy. Like Bruce and Verona, Mendes needs to just relax a little, stop worrying so much, and just let it all fall into place.