Away We Go Dir. Sam Mendes

[Focus Features; 2009]

On paper, the pedigree of Away We Go is downright intimidating. Its director has an Oscar win to his credit and a career’s worth of critical adulation for projects on both stage and screen. Its star is making his first major appearance outside one of television’s most acclaimed and popular comedies. And it features a script coauthored by a power couple of contemporary American literature. So who is to blame for the film's mediocrity?

To put it bluntly, all of the above. All parties involved struggle to perform outside of their comfort zones in this supposedly charming tale of youngish couple Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant, played by The Office’s John Krasinski and SNL alum Maya Rudolph, searching for a place to put down roots and raise their family. With Verona six months pregnant, Burt’s parents suddenly announce that they are leaving their rural Colorado home for Belgium, severing Burt and Verona's only tie to their current place of residence. Apparently unencumbered by jobs that require any actual work, the couple embarks on a whirlwind tour of four major North American cities in which they have acquaintances, hoping to pick one and settle down.

Director Sam Mendes appears to be completely out of his element in his follow up to 2008’s marital tragedy Revolutionary Road. For a director most comfortable when his subject matter is decidedly uncomfortable, Mendes struggles throughout the film to tailor his style to a relatively lighthearted comedy. It is as though he understands that the spirit of the script calls for a quicker camera and less deliberate framing than what he would prefer but does not know how to achieve this without erasing his directorial hand from the screen entirely.

Despite the laughs Krasinski and Rudolph elicit on the small screen, the pair cannot carry a feature film (or, at least, they don't carry this one). Each hammers out one note for the entirety of the film, Krasinski shooting for a lovable juvenility and Rudolph settling into frumpy apprehensiveness. It is admittedly difficult to tell whether their performances falter due to the actors' individual shortcomings or whether the failure is a team effort. Mendes struggles visibly to direct actors to play characters who actually like each other. Krasinski and Rudolph all too often come off as actors delivering lines, rather than characters in conversation with one another. Yet the unbearably saccharine script does them no favors, forcing them to deliver lines like, “You are my light, you are my sky,” without irony (and, in fact, with a sense that they wish the script incorporated some).

This script is the most notable culprit in the crime that is Away We Go, infuriatingly simple and precious. The product of husband and wife duo Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida is not nearly as clever as they want it to be. It would be easy to attribute its failings to the fact that this is both writers’ screenwriting debut, and the awkwardness of the film’s dialogue may indeed stem from unanticipated nuances involved in the transition from page to screen. Yet so many of the flaws lie in basic areas of character and plot development that such accomplished writers should have mastered. Seemingly critical plot points like the death of Verona’s parents are mentioned frequently but never developed, despite ample opportunities. And a major segment depicting an entire stop on Burt and Verona’s trip falls completely flat, thanks to a clichéd sketch of air-headed New Age liberals that one hopes Eggers and Vida don’t actually believe is humorous or current.

Which is all a shame, because Away We Go is dotted with moments of promise. From the outset, it wants to confront issues of great personal relevance to the large contingent of aimless, aging postgraduates in this country. Early on, Verona asks Burt, “Are we fuck-ups?” As she points out, they are approaching their mid-30s with few life achievements. Yet the film only answers “no” through comparison to such obviously flawed characters that it precludes any real validation for self-doubting viewers. A smattering of sight gags and dialogue-based jokes hit home as well, most notably during Burt and Verona’s encounter with a jaded older couple portrayed by Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan.

Away We Go is the kind of film that will appeal to viewers who like to think their taste in entertainment discerning. It’s basically a date movie for people who think they’re too hip and mature for date movies, who like their romantic comedies with a side of the indie folk troubadour du jour (Alexei Murdoch here). It is for viewers who are still into “indie comedies” (a genre that is now being mass-produced at an alarming rate) in which quirky protagonists meet a cast of increasingly quirky characters only to be reminded in the end to just be themselves. The serious cred the film's participants bring to the table is merely a thin veneer. All of which is to say, it is nearly impossible to distinguish Away We Go from just about any other flimsy summertime comedy.

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